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Newly released court documents shed light on investigation of $11 million Harris County vaccine contract

Laptops and computers of senior employees of Judge Lina Hidalgo were the subjects of a search warrant executed last Friday.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — Three senior employees of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo allegedly gave a vendor inside information about a contract weeks before a request for proposal was open to the public, and worked to ensure another company didn’t win the contract, according to recently released search warrants.

The laptops, desktops and computers of those employees – a policy director, senior advisor and chief of staff – were the subjects of a search warrant executed last Friday as part of an investigation into a $10.9 million dollar county vaccine outreach contract.

Staffers began communicating with Elevate Strategies CEO Felicity Pereyra about vaccine community outreach in January 2021, a month before a request for proposal on the subject became public, according to the search warrant.

Text messages and emails in the search warrant include an apparent draft of the request for proposal in January with a note from a senior staffer to “let us know your thoughts and proposed budget after you’ve had a chance to review,” adding they were “happy to discuss further if that would be helpful.”

RELATED: Texas Rangers, DA's office execute search warrants at Harris County administration building

Four companies applied for the project after the request for proposal became public in February. The contract awarded to Elevate Strategies was originally approved by Harris County Commissioners Court in June 2021.

But later that contract was terminated in September 2021 after Elevate Strategies, an alleged one-person firm, came under scrutiny. It was chosen over the UT Health Service Center, despite UTHSC offering a lower bid and rating higher on evaluations, according to county records.

The three employees whose devices were seized made up three of the five members of the evaluation committee. The search warrants detailed texts messages sent among them during the evaluation process.

According to the search warrant, on April 20, 2021, one staffer texted another, “‘This vaccine outreach thing is getting ridiculous. We need to slam the door shut on UT and move on.'” 

In another text between the three staffers on May 7, 2021, a staffer asked another “if he could ‘make the outreach RFP meeting that's happening now?" (a staffer) replied ‘No. Take it away. And don't let UT get it.’”

Eventually, UTHSC scored the highest among the four bidders with a 46.8%, while Elevate Strategies came in second with a 40.4%, according to the search warrant.

Elevate was still recommended to receive the contract because, “Although Elevate Strategies LLC received the second-highest score, they were considered the best proposal due to their firm understanding of the requirements and the provision of a strong submission overall,” a staff report read, according to the search warrant.

KHOU 11 Legal Expert, Carmen Roe, reviewed the search warrants. Roe says that “the bidding process should be a level playing field where it’s fair for anyone who's presenting a bid to have consideration to win that bid. And that did not happen here.”

She went on to say that “these individuals put their thumb on the scale in this case, and told this vendor ahead of time before it was available to the public, information that was needed to win this bid.”

No one has been arrested in the case, but the three staffers could face charges of tampering with a government document and misuse of official information, according to the search warrant.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office had no comment on the newly-released search warrant details “out of fairness to all involved.”

Judge Lina Hidalgo’s attorney Ashlee McFarlane released the following statement on Friday's release of the search warrants:

"The misleading storyline of today’s release is the latest act of political theater from a politically motivated investigation. Ultimately, this was about dedicated public servants trying to get the best team to fight COVID-19 in Harris County. Since she came into office, Judge Hidalgo has held herself and her staff to the highest ethical standards and is the only official to refuse donations from all County vendors." 

Last week, McFarlane said the judge had the “strictest ethical guidelines ever imposed in Harris County and that’s been ironclad from day one.”

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