HARRIS COUNTY, TX - The Texas Rangers have launched an investigation into Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo after claims of evidence tampering arose related to three of her former staffers, who stand accused of directing $11 million in COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract to a preferred vendor, Houston Public Media reports.
The outlet reports the investigation stems from allegations a company, Elevate Strategies, obtained a contract for the proposed project in June 2021.
Due to allegations of improprieties, the contract was eventually withdrawn; however, an investigation commenced when the Harris County District Attorney’s office discovered communications between three now-former staffers in Hidalgo’s office and the founder of Elevate Strategies, Felicity Perevra.
In March 2022, investigators with the Texas Rangers raided the Harris County administration building, where they seized mobile phones and computers while also seeking access to Google accounts. The three former staffers–Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader, and Alex Triantaphyllis–were indicted the next month.
Search warrants unsealed earlier this month show an investigator with the Texas Rangers claimed Hidalgo’s office allegedly concealed “numerous documents and communications that were ordered to be produced by grand jury subpoena,” that included personal phones, draft documents of the proposed project’s scope, and deleted WhatsApp messages.
Hidalgo, however, dismissed allegations that evidence was withheld. In a press conference, she claimed the three staffers had checked with the DA’s office to ensure all the required documents had been sent over. She also dismissed allegations that her now-former staffers deleted messages, saying they would have been “stupid” to do so.
“Any documents that they requested, all of us would have done our very best to hand over,” Hidalgo said. “We turned over everything they asked for; we asked them if they needed anything else. They never said they did.”
Hidalgo has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in her office and defended her former staff members. She also claims the investigation is part of a political vendetta led by district attorney Kim Ogg, who is up for reelection in 2024. Ogg rose to office with support from billionaire George Soros.
“She abuses the office the people entrusted her with, and the sacred work that people entrusted her with, for political investigations,” Hidalgo said. “We’re not going to let a thug run her office in this way and harm the people in this way.”
“This is the same politics she’s been playing for years,” Hidalgo said in the media briefing. “She’s abused the power of her office the way that a bully abuses size on the playground.”
Hidalgo also questioned the timing of the search warrant being apparently “leaked” to the media.
“The timing, right? THe same day yesterday, the same day that polls are released showing that Kim Ogg is losing to her primary opponent,” she said. “She has these extremely detailed statements in the subpoena that any lawyer will tell you did not need to be that detailed, but she wanted to be able to have the false story for people to read and get alarmed about.”
KHOU-Houston reached out to Ogg’s office for comment and received the following response:
“County Judge Hidalgo’s outburst today was nothing more than an attempted deflection from the facts and evidence that led to the initial indictment of her staffers. She 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.
"Using her status as county judge to launch this diatribe is an unfortunate attempt to taint the investigative process and to confuse the public. It 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.”
Ogg is currently fighting for her political life. Houston Public Media reports the Harris County Democratic Party is seeing a petition seeking her admonishment, which wouldn’t affect her current job or otherwise punish her, but it would “send a signal to the incumbent that they’re doing something” the party doesn’t approve of, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
Rottinghaus said the possible sanction and Hidalgo’s endorsement of her opponent could spell trouble for Ogg, meaning “the DA will lose some support among Democratic circles, and really, that’s where she needs to be strong at this point.”