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Houston-area official’s aides indicted over pandemic-related contract

The staffers were part of a committee that selected a vendor for a Covid-19 vaccine outreach campaign in Texas' biggest county.

HOUSTON (CN) — Three aides of the Houston area’s chief elected official were indicted Monday on felony charges related to an $11 million contract for a Covid-19 vaccine education campaign.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a 31-year-old Democrat, has cultivated an image of a politician with impeccable ethical standards since her upset victory in the November 2018 election over the longtime Republican incumbent.

After taking office in January 2019, she announced that to avoid conflicts of interest she would not take campaign contributions from companies that contract with the county. She also asks donors to certify they are not county contractors and puts their occupations on her campaign finance reports.

Hidalgo is CEO of Harris County, home to Houston, not a court at law judge, a role in which her jurisdiction includes the county’s 4.8 million residents, a population larger than 27 U.S. states.

She has ably led the county, the third largest in the country, through natural disasters, numerous chemical plant and refinery fires and explosions and the coronavirus pandemic.

But her handling of one facet of the county’s pandemic response may soon be examined in criminal courtrooms after a grand jury returned indictments Monday against three of her staffers – chief of staff Alex Triantaphyllis, 38, policy director Wallis Nader, 36, and policy aide Aaron Dunn, 35.

They were each charged with two felonies: misuse of official information and tampering with a government record, according to court records, as first reported by the Texas Tribune.

The top punishment for felony misuse of official information is 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, while felony records tampering carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The aides were part of a committee, spearheaded by Hidalgo, which selected a vendor for a Covid-19 vaccine outreach campaign. The committee unanimously awarded an $11 million contract to Elevate Strategies, whose owner Felicity Pereyra has worked on Democrats’ election campaigns, according to the Tribune.

The contract received official approval in June by a 4-1 vote of the Harris County Commissioners Court , which is led by Hidalgo, with the lone dissenting vote from Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office said Monday afternoon it could not comment until police serve the defendants with arrest warrants, and declined to provide copies of the indictments.

Hidalgo’s attorney, Ashlee McFarlane of the Houston firm Gerger Hennessy McFarlane, said in an email she has not seen the indictments either but will respond on Hidalgo’s behalf after she reviews them.

The charges reportedly center on allegations Hidalgo’s aides tapped Pereyra to review the county's request for bids for the contract before awarding it to her company.

The selection process involved a scoring matrix, in which Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis were among the five people who scored the proposals, Houston's NPR affiliate reported.

The University of Texas Health Science Center had the strongest bid with a score of 46.8%. Elevate placed second with 40.4%. Still, Elevate was awarded the $11 million contract.

It was canceled in September with Hidalgo stating it had become too politicized.

The Texas Rangers and Harris County DA’s Office investigators raided the Harris County Administration Building on March 11 in connection with the probe, after which Hidalgo brushed off Republicans’ accusations of corruption as political theater as she campaigns this year for a second term.

Hidalgo attended high school in the west Houston suburb Katy after her Colombian parents moved to the area from Mexico and graduated from Stanford University in 2013 with a political science degree.

She easily won the March primary with 112,369 votes, almost 100,000 more than her closest opponent.

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