New search warrants issued in ongoing Harris County contract probe

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(The Center Square) – New search warrants were issued related to an ongoing probe into an alleged evidence tampering case involving Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and an $11 million taxpayer funded contract with a consulting firm linked with the Democratic Party.

The search warrants were issued 18 months after felony indictments were levied against three of Hidalgo’s former staff members for their alleged involvement in the matter.

Texas Rangers executed five new search warrants totaling more than 150 pages alleging, among other things, that Hidalgo’s employees tampered with evidence after they were being investigated.

Texas Ranger Daron Parker launched the investigation in October 2021 into alleged public corruption by looking into a Targeted Community Vaccine Outreach contract between Harris County and Elevate Strategies, LLC. By April 2022, grand jury proceedings resulted in felony indictments of three of Hidalgo’s former staffers.

“In the course of the investigation, it was discovered that numerous documents and communications that were ordered to be produced by Grand Jury subpoena had been concealed and made unavailable during the earlier Grand Jury proceedings,” Parker said in one of the warrant documents. They include county employees using personal cell phones to communicate about the project, Hidalgo editing the project document, and she and her staff using What’s App text messages to discuss the project, which have since been deleted.

The WhatsApp and SMS messages show that “Hidalgo and her staff believed that the majority of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court were going to vote against funding … the project and used [Judge Hidalgo’s] emergency authorization powers to bypass the voting process and award $10,973,000 to Elevate” and also deleted the messages “after the initiation of the Grand Jury investigation,” he wrote.

Parker is conducting a new investigation “to determine if the felony Offences of Tampering with Evidence has been committed.”

After the search warrants were issued, Hidalgo held a news conference at which she lobbed personal attacks against Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. She said, “there’s nothing there” regarding the search warrant allegations, and her staff “have not been found guilty of anything because they’re not guilty of anything. This is just the same dirty politics she’s been playing at for years and her patterns are extremely clear.”

Hidalgo also claimed Ogg leaked the search warrants to the media. They were made publicly available, posted on the district clerk’s website.

A few days later, Hidalgo endorsed Ogg’s Democratic primary opponent Sean Teare.

“Besides being experienced, he has the moral fortitude to not do what is easy but to do what is right as our next DA,” she said.

In response, Ogg issued a statement describing Hidalgo’s remarks as “an outburst” and “nothing more than an attempted deflection from the facts.”

Hidalgo “using her status as county judge to launch this diatribe is an unfortunate attempt to taint the investigative process and to confuse the public,” Ogg said. Hidalgo’s approach “also serves her indicted staffers very poorly. My office pursues evidence-based prosecutions, regardless of political party, and we look forward to resolving this case in court.”

In one of the search warrant applications, Parker outlines the chronology of his investigation, which began Oct. 7, 2021. The contract was awarded to Elevate Strategies, solely owned by Felicity Pereyra. Pereyra previously served as the campaign manager for Commissioner Adrian Garcia, worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and for the Democratic National Committee.

Elevate Strategies – whose clients at the time the contract was issued were the Democratic-linked law firm of Perkins Coie, Voter Participation Center, Every Town Gun Safety and Community Justice Action Fund, among others – came under scrutiny for not having experience in the public health field when seeking to manage a COVI-19 vaccination outreach campaign, The Center Square previously reported.

The investigation was launched after Hidalgo canceled the contract in September 2021 in response to public outcry. Pereyra received $1.4 million after the contract was initially authorized. The county hasn’t recouped all of it.

A grand jury was then called to investigate. By April 2022, Hidalgo’s former Chief of Staff Alex Triantaphyllis, former Policy Director Wallis Nader, and former aide Aaron Dunn were indicted on felony charges of Misuse of Official Information and Tampering with a Record.

Parker notes that “either Dunn, Nader, Triantaphyllis, a member of the legal team for the Harris County Judge’s Office or some combination of these parties, knowing a criminal investigation and official Grand Jury proceeding was pending or in progress, purposefully concealed messages to prevent them from being available.”

New search warrants allege that former Hidalgo staffers Rafael Lemaitre and Chris Chu-Deleon also participated in these communications.

Ogg said Hidalgo “conflated an ongoing Texas Rangers criminal investigation with her political endorsement of my challenger and engaged in a childish exercise in name-calling that has become all too common in our political process.”

A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for next month.

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