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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo are each battling similar but separate controversies involving millions of dollars in government contracts awarded to politically connected individuals.
The high-stakes drama engulfing the political scene in the nation’s fourth-largest city has so far escaped national media coverage.
Hidalgo has faced intense scrutiny over an $11 million vaccine outreach contract to Elevate Strategies, which is run by Felicity Pereyra, a Democratic political insider with ties to the county commissioners court. Pereyra also worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Pereyra’s company was a one-woman operation until recently and only had existed for two years before being awarded the contract.
Pereyra’s company was awarded the contract over UT Health, one of the city’s major hospitals, and the “deciders” for the contract all answered directly to Hidalgo without input from the commissioners’ panel.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office subpoenaed Hidalgo regarding the contract. When asked about the subpoena, an attorney for Hidalgo told local press, “We have always followed the law, and we continue to follow the law.”
“It is grassroots outreach. It’s the same kind of outreach you do with political outreach. We are at a point where it is a campaign for people to get vaccinated,” Hidalgo said in August in defense of the choice.
A mix of industry experts and county officials told the local Fox News affiliate, FOX 26, that Elevate Strategies did not even meet the basic requirements to engage in an endeavor of this scope. Additionally, the experts and officials said that there was no way that Elevate Strategies could have met the strict financial requirements for bidding on county contracts.
Harris County requires annual billing records dating back five years as well as an audited income statement and a qualifying balance sheet.
But Elevate Strategies reportedly wasn’t required to provide financial statements during the bidding process.
A spokesperson for Hidalgo previously told FOX 26 that Pereyra’s firm has worked with the county on projects before, including the most recent census.
Hidalgo canceled the deal amid scrutiny but thousands of dollars were still paid to Elevate Strategies by the county as the arrangement imploded.
Turner made local headlines when he was accused of corruption by former Houston Housing and Community Development Director Tom McCasland regarding a $15 million housing contract the mayor allegedly moved to award to a “co-developer” firm – the Harbor Venture Group – where his former law partner, Barry Barnes, is in charge.
Turner, who has near unilateral authority to award city contracts as Houston mayor, has denied the allegations, saying he didn’t know Barnes was involved with the company awarded the contract and claiming there was “no conflict” with the contract.
The Houston mayor allegedly went against staff recommendations when awarding the multi-million-dollar contract for senior housing, approving it instead of four other contracts costing $16.2 million that would build over 350 affordable family units.
McCasland was fired the same day as the allegations surfaced in September and soon after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office reportedly began investigating the deal.
Three weeks after McCasland’s allegations against Turner, the mayor canceled the project while claiming the deal had become “too much of a distraction.”
Carmen Roe, a defense lawyer and adjunct professor at the University of Houston School of Law, told Fox News in a phone interview that subpoenas for Turner “are likely to be forthcoming,” although none are currently in play.
Roe also said that “no one can possibly guess as to what a grand jury is going to do” when it came to charges against Hidalgo and that “there’s a lot of information that we don’t know.”
“What we do know is: very suspicious, highly irregular and could lead to criminal charges,” Roe said.
“Both cases, at a value of greater than $300,000, are first-degree felonies,” she added, referring to Hidalgo and Turner. “Which means they carry a possible punishment range of a minimum of five years in prison up to life in prison.”
Roe added that she believes it is “going to be difficult to even conceive of the notion that two of our most significant political leaders here in the City of Houston could be charged with such serious charges here in Houston.”
Houston City Councilman Michael Kubosh told Fox News in a phone interview that “nothing pollutes like power, and nothing pollutes absolutely like absolute power.”
“They have really stretched out their power to do everything they can to maximize their agenda,” Kubosh said. “I think it’s a twisted agenda.”
Kubosh also blasted the Harris County court of commissioners for “not doing a thing” regarding Hidalgo.
Both Hidalgo and Turner have emphatically denied any wrongdoing and neither has been criminally charged to date.
Mary Benton, Turner’s communications director, told Fox News in an email that Turner’s administration “has done nothing wrong and the former housing director said as much in his comments.”
“The administration has the authority to select a housing development regardless of the staff’s recommendations as was thoroughly discussed in a public housing committee,” Benton said.
“This development would have provided seniors with affordable housing in an area where none had been built with Harvey multi-family funds and was supported by the District E council member,” she added. “The General Land Office has approved every city housing development since taking over the DR-17 funding.
“It’s also important to remember that the General Land Office (GLO) was aware of every step taken by the City of Houston and had approved the process up until we decided to halt the project,” Benton concluded. “No action approving the distribution of funds had taken place because the item had not yet made it to council where it would have been fully vetted.”
Hidalgo spokesperson Ashlee McFarlane told Fox News in an email that “there was no benefit to Judge Hidalgo from this contract, financially or otherwise, and it was approved with bipartisan support through the normal procurement process.”
“This commissioners court has made it a priority to give opportunities to local, small and minority-owned businesses who have the qualifications to serve their community,” said Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s spokesman.
“This firm was selected because they have demonstrated that they can reach people strategically and encourage them to get vaccinated,” Lemaitre also said.