Judge Lina Hidalgo — a Democrat in Harris County, Texas, the third-largest in the United States — no longer denies that she used encrypted messaging apps to conduct county business, despite being called upon to do so under multi-million-dollar contracts in 2021.
Last week, the Texas Rangers were granted five additional search warrants to investigate bid rigging in Harris County, FOX 26 Houston reported.
In 2021, Hidalgo faced intense scrutiny over an $11 million vaccine outreach contract for Elevate Strategies, run by Felicity Pereira, a Democratic political figure with ties to the County Commissioners Court. Pereira also worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Pereira was a one-woman business until recently, and had only been around for two years before she was awarded the contract.
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Pereira’s firm awarded the contract to UT Health, one of the city’s major hospitals, and the contract “decision makers” answered directly to Hidalgo without input from the panel of commissioners.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office subpoenaed Hidalgo in connection with the contract, and when asked about the subpoena, Hidalgo’s attorney told the local press: “We have always followed the law, and we continue to follow the law.”
A mix of industry experts and county officials told FOX 26 that Elevate Strategies did not meet even the basic requirements to participate in an endeavor of this scope. In addition, experts and officials said there was no way Elevate Strategies could meet the stringent financial requirements for bidding on county contracts.
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Harris County requires annual billing records dating back five years as well as an audited income statement and qualifying balance sheet.
But Elevate Strategies was reportedly not required to provide financial statements during the bidding process.
A Hidalgo spokesperson previously told FOX 26 that Pereira’s firm has worked with the county on projects before, including the recent census.
Hidalgo canceled the deal amid scrutiny, but the district still paid thousands of dollars to Elevate Strategies as the arrangement collapsed.
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Arrest warrants issued to the Texas Rangers last week allege that Hidalgo was communicating with her chief of staff via WhatsApp regarding county business and, specifically, holding multi-million dollar COVID communications, leading to the criminal indictment of three of her top aides.
In May 2022, Hidalgo denied using encrypted messaging apps to communicate for business purposes.
“Man. I have Slack, I have Signal, I have WhatsApp. I haven’t used it in years,” she said during a press conference.
FOX 26 asked her if she wanted to avoid the prospect of having government conversations in “essentially a technology black box,” to which she replied: “I told you. I don’t have government conversations on Signal.”
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This week, the station reportedly reminded Hidalgo of what she said in 2022, and pressured her to tell the truth.
“We got these search warrants, and there are multiple messages between you and your former chief of staff on WhatsApp. So, do you want to undo that? Did that happen,” a FOX 26 employee asked.
“The question was whether I conduct county business on Signal. I do not conduct county business on Signal,” Hidalgo said.
To clarify, the reporter asked Hidalgo if she conducted business in the province via WhatsApp and other encrypted apps, and Hidalgo told her: “I already answered the question.”
WhatsApp claims on its website that it provides “end-to-end encryption” for personal messages, adding that calls are secure.
The company says on its website: “Only you and the person you are talking to can read or listen, not even WhatsApp.”
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By encrypting messages, journalists and the public have little ability to review what should be public records related to county business.
Also, in Texas, the title “county judge” is a misnomer. They are not judges in courtrooms, but rather chief officials in their counties who have a major say in spending and are responsible for responding to local emergencies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.