Texas Rangers are in the process of serving search warrants at locations across Harris County, according to ABC 13 reporting. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)
Starting early in the morning March 11, Texas Rangers seized electronics from the executive offices at Harris County administration offices in an investigation into a COVID-19 contract awarded to a firm with alleged ties to members of the county administration, according to ABC 13 reporting.
The Texas Rangers—a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety—said in a statement to 13 Investigates that it is working with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s prosecutors and investigators to serve multiple search warrants at the request of the DA’s office.
“We would refer additional questions to the DA’s Office,” DPS officials said.
In a brief statement, the DA’s office told 13 Investigates “a judge signed search warrants, which are legal authorization to search for and seize potential evidence of a crime. Out of fairness for all parties involved, we have no additional comment at this time.”
March 11’s warrant is the latest in a series of events that have occurred following the award of a multimillion-dollar COVID-19 contract to a company called Elevate Strategies last summer.
Elevate Strategies, run by Felicity Pereyra, won Harris County’s contract in June, beating out much larger health care companies, which had also bid. A call to Pereyra on March 11 from ABC 13 has not been returned.
Amid controversy over the hiring, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo canceled the deal months later. But county documents obtained by 13 Investigates show the county still paid more than $1.4 million on the contract as it wound down.
Hidalgo’s spokesperson did not comment to ABC 13 and referred questions to the judge’s law firm.
“The judge has the strictest ethical guidelines ever imposed in Harris County, and that’s been ironclad from day one,” Hidalgo’s attorney said in a statement to 13 Investigates. “This is nothing but political theater since the devices would have been provided on request. What’s missing is any shred of evidence, but what’s in abundance is politics.”
When questioned about the contract in a commissioners meeting last September, Hidalgo said “bring it on because there’s nothing here.”
Since then, some of money paid to Elevate and the equipment purchased with it was returned by the contractor to Harris County.
Invoices and refund checks obtained by 13 Investigates show the company refunded the county for the cost of “50 one-year unlimited data plans for 50 tablets” and “digital ad reservations.”
Elevate Strategies is a Houston firm, and the contract was designed to reach unvaccinated people in Harris County to convince them to get vaccinated. The contract would have entailed a full year of targeted community vaccine outreach, engaging county residents via calls, texts, social media, face-to-face canvassing and direct mail, focusing on the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19, according to previous Community Impact Newspaper coverage.
Disagreement among commissioners
As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle—the two Republican commissioners for Precincts 3 and 4, respectively—said they were hesitant to agree to work with Elevate Strategies as Pereyra has worked on Democratic campaigns including Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run and the mayoral campaign of Adrian Garcia, who is now Precinct 2 commissioner.
They suggested the data collected could later be used to benefit Democratic candidates despite Hidalgo’s assurances the firm was not selected for political reasons.
During the Aug. 24 meeting, Cagle asked for more information on who follows up with vendors who receive millions of dollars in contracts to make sure work is being performed to standards.
The county’s budget officer, Daniel Ramos, said the $11 million contract to Elevate would not be paid all at once, but instead based on the work performed, adding that progress would be monitored.
Then at the Sept. 14 meeting, Ramsey shared additional concerns that he said have come up since the contract has been in place, including the “amount of the contract was not known,” and other details of the process were not communicated to him, Community Impact Newspaper reported.
At the meeting, Hidalgo said no part of this contract approval process differed from the court’s standard protocol.