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Through almost three years of political and legal drama, allegations of partisan influence have hovered over an ill-fated initiative by Harris County officials to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19.

In the first few months after the Commissioners Court awarded an $11 million vaccine outreach contract to Elevate Strategies in June 2021, the two Republican commissioners alleged the firm had been selected over a more qualified bidder because its leader, Felicity Pereyra, had done campaign work for Democratic candidates. “It just has a smell to it,” then-Commissioner Jack Cagle said that September, after County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she would cancel the contract because it had become too politicized to achieve its goals.

Hidalgo, a Democrat whose aides had overseen the process of selecting the vendor, said the allegations were a baseless effort by her political opponents – including District Attorney Kim Ogg, a fellow Democrat – to discredit her as she prepared to campaign for a second term. Hidalgo had clashed with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott over COVID-19 restrictions, and some of the state’s biggest GOP donors later would donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hidalgo’s Republican opponent, Alexandra del Moral Mealer, who lost to the incumbent by less than 2 percentage points in November 2022.

As the rhetorical battle over the vaccine contract escalated during the fall of 2021, a state Republican Party leader began working behind the scenes to assist Ogg’s investigation of the contract – an inquiry that led to the felony indictments of two of Hidalgo’s aides and a former aide on charges of misusing official information and tampering with a government document in April 2022.

Rachel Palmer Hooper, a former Harris County prosecutor who now is a partner with the BakerHostetler law firm, began her work on the Elevate Strategies investigation in October 2021, public records show. At the time, she was the assistant general counsel of the Texas Republican Party; she since has been promoted to general counsel, according to the party website. Her husband, Don Hooper, is a conservative blogger who has referred to Hidalgo and other Democratic elected county officials as “Marxists.”

Rachel Hooper’s work on a “special project concerning Harris County,” as a county official described it in an Oct. 27, 2021 email to her, was performed under a 2019 contract with BakerHostetler, which has offices in 17 cities, including Houston. The scope of work described in the contract reflects an unrelated purpose – to review the district attorney’s office’s “policies, practices and programs for conflicts of interest and disclosure and reporting of same.”

Invoices obtained through open records requests and shared with the Abdelraoufsinno show Hooper's law firm was paid more than $174,000 from Feb. 8, 2022, through March 2, 2023. Tasks she performed, according to the invoices, included drafting and revising search warrants and subpoenas, drafting correspondence to lawyers involved in the case and preparing questions for grand jury witnesses and various county officials, including then-Commissioner Cagle.

Cagle had cast the only vote against the COVID-19 contract award and was one of its harshest critics. He lost his 2022 re-election bid to Democrat Lesley Briones after redistricting placed more likely Democratic voters in his precinct.

Although the district attorney’s contract was with BakerHostetler, all of the related invoices provided in response to the public records requests bear Hooper’s name. The contract stipulated a fee of $450 per hour. The same law firm billed the county attorney’s office, which handles civil matters, more than $76,000 from 2020 through 2023 for services under multiple contracts, public records show. Hooper’s name is not on any of those invoices.

The disclosure of Hooper’s involvement in the case comes as Ogg faces headwinds from within her own party and a well-funded primary challenge by one of her former assistants, Sean Teare. On Dec. 12, Harris County precinct chairs approved a resolution admonishing the two-term district attorney for not adequately reflecting the party’s values on issues such as bail reform. Ogg dismissed the vote as “political drama within the party.”

Nancy Sims, a longtime Houston political consultant and a lecturer at the University of Houston, said news of Hooper’s role in the vaccine outreach investigation could be problematic for Ogg: “The more people understand the (political) connections, the more it will confuse the issue of whether the indictments were legitimate or not,” she said.

In response to a detailed list of questions about Hooper’s work on the investigation and the contract under which she was hired, the district attorney’s office provided this statement:

“The Texas Rangers did the original investigation and Rachel Palmer Hooper’s role was to draft and review legal documents. We have a longstanding master agreement with the law firm of BakerHostetler that allows our office to hire them as outside counsel, as does the Harris County Attorney’s Office. We have no say in how much the firm paid Ms. Hooper for her work.”

In a subsequent interview, Joe Stinebaker, Ogg’s communications director, said BakerHostetler was hired because “we needed the manpower.” At the time, he said, three or four of the office’s eight public corruption prosecutors were out of the office due to military leave or other reasons, and some of those remaining were relatively new to the public corruption division. The law firm’s fees were paid from asset forfeiture funds seized from criminals, he said.

Hooper’s role was limited to drafting and reviewing legal documents and “making sure T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted,” Stinebaker said. “At no point was she doing anything in terms of strategy or trial preparation.”

Hooper did not respond to email and phone messages.

The Texas Rangers’ involvement in the case was the result of a request from Ogg’s office in November 2021, according to news reports at the time and a statement by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Rangers’ parent agency. In an updated statement a few hours later, DPS said the district attorney’s office and the Rangers jointly launched the investigation.

The case has moved slowly since the indictments were issued almost two years ago. No trial date has been set, and state District Judge Hazel B. Jones has not ruled on a defense motion to disqualify Ogg’s office from overseeing the case.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 29 on a defense motion to void new search warrants alleging that personnel in Hidalgo’s office withheld messages pertinent to the case. (Disclosure: Warrants issued in the case named Kathryn Kase, the general counsel in the county judge’s office, in her role as records custodian. Kase is the wife of Jeff Cohen, a member of the Abdelraoufsinno’s board of directors.)

The only previous disclosure of Hooper’s role in the case was a Nov. 17, 2023, report on KPRC television, featuring commentary by the station’s legal analyst, defense attorney Brian Wice. The report is not archived on the station’s website. Hooper’s name does not appear on any of the public documents filed in court related to the case, and many of the BakerHostetler invoices are labeled “CONFIDENTIAL internal investigation for Harris County.”

Murray Newman, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and a frequent Ogg critic, said Hooper’s involvement in the case “starts to raise a lot of questions given her involvement with the state GOP. I think Harris County is, obviously, a huge concern to Texas Republicans because it is something that has definitely shifted to a completely blue county, and there is no bigger figurehead that’s a target to statewide Republicans than Lina Hidalgo.”

Newman represents Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s former communications director, who has not been charged in the case but who is named in the most recent search warrants.

Teare, Ogg’s primary opponent, said Hooper’s involvement was wildly inappropriate.

Prosecutors in the district attorney’s public corruption division operate under rules intended to ensure the office is not used for political ends. “In this case, without question, you erased all of those precautions and put someone who at the very least has a perceived bias against the target of your investigation,” Teare said.

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Mike Snyder is a Houston-based journalist who worked for 40 years as a reporter, editor and columnist at the Houston Chronicle. He can be reached at [email protected].