Rescue Us: Following The COVID-19 Money

Share this story:

“Rescue Us: Following The COVID-19 Money”

Our investigation into the use of COVID-19 relief money by Lina Hidalgo has prompted an internal investigation by the Harris County auditor.

A lot of the federal COVID-19 money has gone into rental assistance, and what amounts to a bribe for folks to get the COVID-19 vaccines two years ago.

Why is Harris County trying to keep you in the dark?

Lina Hidalgo has been on some sort of a media tour of sorts about her mental illness since her return to her job as county judge.

But try to get answers about the way she is spending your tax money, and you get simply stonewalled.

Especially when it comes to the way Hidalgo and her friends on commissioner’s court are spending federal COVID relief money. Even the county auditor and purchasing agent have been kept in the dark.

“When you get into these massive programs 900 plus million dollars then, you need to have a program that will great assurances,” states Tom Ramsey.

“Answering questions that you’re placing out there should be pretty easy,” continued Ramsey.

We do know a lot of the federal relief money we’ve been tracking is being spent on rental assistance. Nearly 74 million dollars.

Most of that money is going to Catholic Charities and Baker Ripley, which has already been busted by outside auditors for the way that charity managed the first pot of covid relief money under the cares act.

A lot of tax money misused. Here’s an example, “the system did not properly identify multiple applications for the same household causing duplicate payments,” read the report.

317 houses where multiple people in the same house got money. Hundreds of landlords were overpaid. Payments for months of rent not even owed.

One county official privately called the audit “pathetic.”

Since that audit, you’ve paid 142 million dollars to Baker Ripley for all kinds of things.

We do have current Baker Ripley contracts with Harris County for about 80 million dollars for rental assistance.

We know from charity records the top executive at Baker Ripley salary has gone up 45% in a couple of years.

But does anyone at the county administration building care about the alarm bells ringing here? Who’s guarding our tax money anyway? Kind of a simple question.

Diana, can we coordinate a time to talk to you, we’ve been trying to get answers for quite a while,” asked Brian Collister.

That was June. Our 400,000-dollar county administrator has ignored our questions, head of a bureaucracy created by Lina Hidalgo and her friends on commissioners court.

We’ve been trying for months to simply find out for you who’s guarding your piggy bank. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Boston Consulting group got a 6,400,000-million-dollar contract. Some of it for “compliance reviews, audit support and financial monitoring.”

The company won’t talk to us either, but Harris County fought for months to keep you from seeing some of the financial monitoring you paid for. Finally coughing up records the attorney general ordered released months ago. And only after we threatened a criminal complaint.

“We should be able to answer any question you’ve got because much of what you’re putting on the table isn’t complicated,” said Ramsey.

The new documents reveal possible problems in a review of Hidalgo’s child tax credit program with Baker Ripley. Which included advance payments to some folks even before they asked for the tax credit from the IRS.

“How was it confirmed the individuals submitted their taxes, “reads the report.

Sounds like a question that should have been asked before we started giving away money.

A review of the program by a Boston Consulting subcontractor named Witt Obrien’s uncovers questionable expenses, including requests for wire transfers from Baker Ripley that are unidentified totaling $486,077.

Even before this breaking news, the county auditor has now launched an independent audit of COVID money used for rental assistance at the request of commissioner Tom Ramsey.

“Until there’s transparency and we have a transparency problem in Harris until there’s transparency then there is suspicion,” said Ramsey.

The auditor has already looked into unusually high rental assistance payments to some families after we raised questions.

Remember we told you about the family of four on this street that got 47,700 dollars. Rental payments for eighteen months.

While other Harris County residents were getting evicted.

Turns out the county put no controls on how much individual families could get.

The county has been willing to share numbers detailing their alleged rental assistance success, without letting us see the details including the names of the people who got the money.

According to county documents, Baker Ripley claimed 18,696 households got rental assistance in two years.

Catholic Charities are credited with helping 203 households in nine months.

“So, we are announcing starting today, anyone who gets their first dose of the COVID vaccine from Harris County Public Health will recieve hundred dollars,” said Lina Hidalgo.

When demand for COVID vaccinations started dropping in the summer of 2021 Lina Hidalgo declared an emergency.

And did what a lot of mostly democratic politicians did, find a way to offer legal bribes to people to get vaccinated using American Rescue Plan money.

A unanimous commissioners court approved spending 12.5 million dollars, to give 100 gift cards to people who would take the needle. There were no bids.

“If that’s what it takes, great. I think it’s the easiest 100 dollars you’ll ever make,” said Hidalgo.

As the program wound up, the chronicle reported 65,000 gift cards had been given out.

But one of the companies that got the contract in the first place, to dole out gift cards had been accused just a few weeks before in a lawsuit of stealing 1.8 million dollars from two San Antonio businesses. True or not, it was not a secret before they voted.

“It’s been so successful that we’ve got other jurisdictions calling us and wanting information and wanting to replicate it,” claimed Hidalgo.

And it turns out, no one ever gave the public the true numbers after the program ended.

County records provided to Dolcefino Consulting this year show 43,730 gift cards were actually given out.

We can’t find any media reports about the fact that more than 4.5 million dollars of that money went unspent and was returned to county coffers.

Months ago, we learned $164,000 in those covid vaccine gift cards were sitting unused in a health department office for months while people were getting evicted.

“But this is the problem with gift cards. This is the problem with trying to get direct assistance. I think direct assistance is problematic,” said Ramsey.

We did that interview before we finally wrestled new records from Harris County after a several months long fight and a threat to file a criminal complaint.

Maybe they think hiding details from you was a good idea but look at this document Harris County finally produced detailing a compliance review dated May of 2022 on the vaccine incentive program nine months after it ended.

Hope you like black because the results of the review is all blacked out.

But in August of last year, there was a follow up review.

And while these reviews are apparently designed to not be critical, Witt Obrien’s found 5,500 gift cards could not be reconciled.

And there were much bigger issues with documenting the people got virtual gift cards.

As many as 22,734 beneficiary files could not be successfully reconciled.

Those are serious questions about nearly three million dollars in gift card giveaways.

“There were key documents that were not being properly filled out at the end of each day,” read the report.

Theres no indication Lina Hidalgo or her administrator has ordered any additional reviews of any of this and It’s time for the secrets to end.

The auditor should be empowered immediately to investigate all the American Rescue Plan findings. Give him the extra personnel instead of these companies that you hire that are afraid to really criticize because they don’t want to lose their contracts.

Keep up with us on social media: