Dem Texas judge rails against political ‘weaponization of the criminal justice system’ over staffer indictments

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(Video Credit: ABC13 Houston)

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has made her first on-camera comments in defense of two current and one former staffer after they were indicted over misuse of official information and tampering with a government record, calling the charges “flimsy” and asserting it was political.

The Democratic Texas judge tore into county prosecutors for weaponizing the criminal justice system, according to ABC13.

The three indicted on Monday include Alex Triantaphyllis, who is Hidalgo’s current chief of staff; Aaron Dunn, who was at the time a senior advisor for public safety and emergency management at the county; and Wallis Nader, who is Hidalgo’s deputy policy director.

Investigators and Texas Rangers are alleging that all three were complicit in steering a nearly $11 million COVID vaccine outreach contract to a small Houston-based firm called Elevate Strategies and its founder Felicity Pereyra. They are also accused of sharing proposal documents with the company before they were made public.

(Video Credit: KPRC 2 Click2Houston)

Search warrants were issued to get a hold of text messages and emails between the trio concerning the contracts before it was awarded. Hidalgo’s legal team asserts that the communications don’t give an adequate picture of what transpired and are being used out of context. Authorities also seized phones, laptops, and desktop computers.

“At best, this is going forward with a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts and at worst, it is the weaponization of the criminal justice system for political purposes so I’m not going to play into that,” Hidalgo bluntly told ABC13 on Wednesday. “My staffers are hardworking people. They work day and night for the people of Harris County and we’ve got work to do, like this catalytic converter issue or like childhood education, homelessness, huge wins.”

Hidalgo’s attorneys hinted at the alleged “misunderstanding” will be easily explained before a jury.

“The facts just don’t add up as they’re being presented,” Hidalgo told the media outlet. “It’s the middle of an election year and I think it’s very clear that the motivations around this are just to harm me politically and it’s very sad to see the criminal justice system used that way.”

The media outlet asked Hidalgo if she was worried about being indicted herself.

“No. I mean, look, I don’t know how far this is going to go and it’s very easy when you present one-sided facts to the grand jury. Everybody knows a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich if that’s all they see,” she responded.

“Since the State of Texas disbanded the Public Integrity Unit, which was housed at Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the responsibility for such work has landed exclusively with district attorneys across the state,” Dane Schiller, who is the spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, noted on Monday. “Prosecutors presented the evidence to a Harris County grand jury, which determined there was sufficient evidence for criminal charges. We will follow the evidence wherever it leads and apply the law equally to all; our work continues.”

“There’s been no wrongdoing. We’re glad to be in a fair and objective forum finally. There’s been one side of the story released to date and reported on. We’re excited to have our side of the story out there,” Triantaphyllis’ attorney Marla Poirot said following an initial appearance in court according to ABC13.

“I’m proud to represent a public servant. After listening to the prosecutor’s rendition of probable cause, I’m really curious to see how in the world they’re going to prove this case, but I stand by my client. He’s innocent and we look forward to having our day in court,” Dunn’s attorney Derek Hollingsworth also said at the time.

Hidalgo’s campaign spokesperson, Toni Harrison told 13 Investigates reporter Ted Oberg last week that Pereyra was not supposed to be given the scope of work for the vaccine outreach contract before it was publicly released for vendors to bid on. She claimed it was “human error.”

“She was sent a scope of work. That was the incorrect document. It was simply human error,” Harrison asserted. “I (sometimes send) the wrong attachment (to people). I probably do that once a day. (In this case), you’ll see a trail where that is corrected and another message is sent to (Pereyra) and it says, this is actually the correct scope of work approved by the judge.”

“(This case) was human error, the wrong document was sent. Now we have a practice. There’s a practice on how we do that to ensure we’re sending the right document. Look at the document name, things like that can make a huge difference in these types of situations,” Harrison said.

Elevate Strategies was awarded the multi-million dollar vaccine outreach contract in June 2021. Three months later it was canceled but the company was still paid $1.4 million. The company has agreed to pay back $1.2 million.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that unfair accusations are being leveled against my team in the middle of my re-election campaign,” Hidalgo tweeted. “I do not, and will not, cave to bullying or political dirty tricks. I have not seen anything to suggest my staff did anything but work tirelessly for the people of Harris County. They will remain on my team.”


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