HOUSTON – On Friday, March 11, Texas Rangers and the Harris County District Attorney raided the office of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, seizing computers, telephones and other items. One month later, Hidalgo’s chief of staff, Alex Triantaphyllis, policy director Wallis Nader and former policy aide Aaron Dunn were indicted on charges of misuse of official information and tampering with a government record. Hidalgo has dismissed the charges as politically motivated, saying that she expects to be indicted too.
As I showed in part one of this investigation, despite her image as a political outsider and progressive reformer, Hidalgo is a darling of the Democratic National Committee, spent her formative years training under neoliberal scions in elite institutions, and worked abroad in CIA cutouts before being dispatched by a top Democratic Party strategist to become the most powerful elected official in the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States.
The indictments were made for their roles in a rigged bid for a $10.9 million contract for community vaccine outreach that Hidalgo awarded to Elevate Strategies, LLC, a firm owned by Felicity Pereyra, who is also tied to the Democratic National Committee. Selected over the higher-scoring University of Texas Health Science Center, Pereyra’s firm had no background in the medical field, no apparent employees, and was operated out of an apartment in Montrose, an affluent neighborhood populated by millennial hipsters. She previously worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the mayoral campaign of Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who voted to approve the contract.
The day after the arrests, Hidalgo tweeted out a statement accusing her opponents of “political dirty tricks.” At the same time, her official website added a page titled “Truth Center,” claiming to debunk the allegations of wrongdoing.
Text messages obtained in the unsealed warrant show that Hidalgo’s staff members were assisting Pereyra to tailor her proposal and that Hidalgo herself was aware.
Messages from Triantaphyllis to Nader say that he got Hidalgo “to agree with this scope” of the contract, and instructed to “sen[d] it to Felicity so we can see what her thoughts are on $$$.”
Another message from Hidalgo says she had “taken a stab” at the scope of the project, and that “What I don’t know is whether these folks will be in charge of the data or whether Felicity can do the disparities data too.”
Triantaphyllis texted Nader that “This vaccine outreach thing is getting ridiculous. We need to slam the door shut on UT and move on.” Triantaphyllis also texted Dunn, “Take it away. And don’t let UT get it.”
While the scandal is centered on Hidalgo and her staff, little attention has been paid to the involvement of the Texas Policy Lab (TPL). The TPL is an opaque private think tank funded by Arnold Ventures, a for-profit corporation owned by John and Laura Arnold, Houston’s wealthiest couple, whose fortune is worth an estimated $3.3 billion. Housed inside Rice University, a private research institution where Laura Arnold sits as a board trustee, the TPL was founded in September 2018 with a $6.6 million grant from the Arnolds. It is one of several private think tanks that comprise part of the billionaire power couple’s nationwide influence machine.
As this investigation will show, it has played a fundamental role in shaping destructive lockdown policies and school closures in cities across the United States during the coronavirus era.
‘We’re not a police state’
On March 24, 2020, County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered strict lockdowns, forcing most businesses to close and banning private or public gatherings beyond families or roommates. Harris County citizens were immediately forced to stay indoors, with exceptions for last-minute trips for essential needs.
Workers in energy, transportation, construction and food service industries – those deemed “essential workers” – were considered exceptions, regardless of their age or health, the main determinant factors in COVID-19 hospitalization and mortality rates. Hidalgo said the homeless population was “strongly urged to obtain shelter” and remain six feet apart from any other person.
Those who violated the order were subject to fines and even jail time. “This is not a ‘pretty please’ anymore,” Hidalgo warned. “But again, we’re not a police state.”
Hidalgo’s sweeping lockdown order was not crafted by a public body, but by the TPL. “I get epidemiology advice from doctors, and from folks at Rice University — the Texas Policy Lab epidemiologists at Rice have been advising us since the very beginning,” Hidalgo told the Houston Chronicle.
An April 23, 2020, Rice University statement credited the lab with crafting lockdown policies:
TPL is providing support to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office by drawing upon the expertise of its research scientists, professional staff and Rice faculty. Researchers have already been working around-the-clock for the past several weeks to provide the county the most pertinent, up-to-date scientific information to inform various aspects of its plans to combat COVID-19, including analyses on the effectiveness of the county’s ‘stay at home, work safe’ order.
An April 29, 2020, Arnold Ventures’ press release states:
For the past month, the county and the Texas Policy Lab have been working around the clock to produce and acquire the best scientific information to inform critical decisions such as the stay-at-home order and how to mitigate transmission in the county’s jails and juvenile detention facilities.
A Texas Tribune article states that “Hidalgo said all of her decisions so far have been guided by conversations with a group of Rice University researchers” – an apparent reference to the Texas Policy Lab.
TPL even designed Hidalgo’s controversial War On Terror-style COVID threat level system, which codified the parameters of when phases of lockdown restrictions would kick in.
“They helped us develop the threat-level system,” she said. “We laid out, ‘Okay, this is what we do at Red, Orange, Yellow and Green.’”
The system’s “Severe Threat” level demanded people stay home unless they are “fully vaccinated,” despite the fact that the vaccines do not prevent contraction or transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
TPL’s website boasts of “informing policy-making at every level of government” and that it “provides the scientific expertise to design, implement and evaluate priority programs, services and policies to help refine current ones and pilot new ideas.” It adds that “We give our agency partners actionable scientific insights to guide decisions on how and where to invest their resources.”
The website elaborates that “The TPL has been providing Harris County leadership with scientific expertise, epidemiologic insights, and evidence synthesis relevant to the local COVID-19 public health response efforts and ongoing policy development.”
In addition to Lina Hidalgo’s office, the TPL advises the Texas Department of State Health Services, Abilene-Taylor County Public Health, Harris County Public Health and Fort Bend Health and Human Services.
While the TPL advises on public health policy, its website does not list any physicians among its staff. Its director is Ekim Cem Muyan, an economist who previously worked at Cornerstone Research, a corporate finance firm, and who researches “decentralization and public spending, campaign spending, and foreign aid networks.”
For all of its influence, the TPL is a single node in a gargantuan and highly-sophisticated influence network owned and operated by the Arnolds, with a stated core objective of using “evidence-based solutions that maximize opportunity and minimize injustice.”
“Policy labs” craft policy across the country
Arnold Ventures funds private think tanks branded “policy labs” across the United States, spending more than $49 million on 160 “lab projects” to craft policy for governments at all levels.
One of these projects is The Lab @ DC, an organization housed inside Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of the City Administrator. Created in 2017, it collaborated with the District of Columbia police department to study the effectiveness of police wearing body cameras. Given unfettered access to “untapped data sitting on government computers,” the billionaire-funded outfit was handed the power to develop public policies in what Bowser herself referred to as an “experiment.”
Since March 2020, despite having no medical doctors or scientists on its staff, The Lab @ DC project has played a key role in prescribing Bowser’s ‘ReOpenDC’ plan.
Announced in May 2020, ReOpenDC recommendations include a semi-permanent regime of restrictions on social activity in public and private, ostensibly to combat COVID-19. The guidebook calls for a “reorientation of public spaces” to “reallocate sidewalks and streets to support physical distancing for residents,” for businesses to hire “social distancing ambassadors,” and to implement virtual schooling. This regime will be in place until an “effective vaccine or cure” for COVID-19 can be developed, at which point the city would reach a “new normal.”
Yet Washington D.C.’s official website and literature make no mention of The Lab @ DC’s funding with the billionaire-backed for-profit corporation. An Arnold Ventures commentary explains that, “At the direction of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, The Lab @ DC, an internal team of data scientists, social scientists, and design-thinkers, has supported the District’s comprehensive response to COVID-19, as well as the plans on how to ReOpen DC.”
ReOpenDC is headed by former national security advisor turned domestic secretary Susan Rice and former Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff. Among its dozens of staff members, few of which are medical doctors or scientists, is former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile, hedge fund billionaire and Jeffrey Epstein- confidant Glenn Dubin and celebrity chef José Andrés.
Arnold Ventures, alongside the Gates Foundation, funds the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, dedicated to what it calls “modeling complex education finance decisions to inform education policy and practice.”
Similarly, Arnold Ventures funds:
- The Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab, housed in the University of Denver, which partnered with the Colorado Departments of Human Services and Education to “develop an integrated sharing system that could provide a 360-degree view of student behavior.”
- California Policy Lab, which informs state and local governments in California, and is funded by Gates Foundation and Schmidt Futures, the influence operation of former Google CEO and National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence commissioner Eric Schmidt.
- Brown Policy Lab at Brown University, where they create policy for the Rhode Island government, and the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab. In collaboration with the State Department of Health, the Brown Policy lab tests messaging to increase vaccination.
- Georgia Child and Family Policy Lab, housed in Georgia State University.
- University of Washington Applied Public Policy Lab.
- Youth Policy Lab at the University of Michigan in collaboration with Michigan State University.
- Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“One of the least-known billionaires in the US”
John Arnold began his career as an energy trader at Enron, the Houston-based energy corporation known for the most notorious accounting scandal of all time, stealing billions of dollars and collapsing financial markets in the process. As the house of cards fell, Arnold was booking record profits buying from sales of natural gas contracts, and was handed an $8 million bonus, the largest in Enron history. Despite his star status at Enron, Arnold walked away without facing any accusations of malpractice.
In 2002, Arnold leveraged his millions to found his own hedge fund, Centaurus Advisors, hiring his former boss, Greg Whalley, despite investors suing him. By 2007, Arnold became the youngest billionaire in the United States, vaulting him to celebrity status among the small clique of billionaires.
“I have never seen such universal adulation of anyone in an industry the way I’ve seen people adulate him,” one executive told Fortune. “CEOs with their own private jets worship him. Grizzled traders act like 12-year old girls around Justin Bieber when he walks into the room.”
Arnold married Laura Muñoz, a Puerto Rican-born mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer and an executive at the now-bankrupt petroleum exploration firm Cobalt International Energy. In 2008, the Arnolds founded the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the basis of their influence network.
In 2010, both the Arnolds and Bill Gates were original signatories to The Giving Pledge, a PR initiative launched by Gates and Warren Buffett, calling on the world’s ultra-wealthy to “give away” more than half of their wealth in their lifetimes.
“We will devote the majority of our wealth, time and resources to philanthropy in the coming years, and we fully intend to achieve transformative results during our lifetime. There is no more worthwhile work and no greater mission. And there is no reason for delay in making a difference,” the Arnolds said in a released statement.
During a January 2020 Davos World Economic Forum event, the Arnolds were the first to sign a “Give While You Live” pledge, promising to donate 5% of their fortune annually.
The Arnolds’ ties to Gates are extensive. In 2018, the John and Laura Arnold Foundation hired Michael Deich as Executive Vice President of Policy and Advocacy. Deich was previously a top official in the Obama administration’s and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Alongside their non-profit Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Arnolds created an overtly political arm called Action Now Initiative, funding politicians and political initiatives which strike at workers. John Arnold’’s spending on anti-pension and anti-union initiatives, including a failed campaign to replace Phoenix’s public pension system with a privatized 401(k)-style plan, earned him the ire of government employees. “When people hear of an effort to get rid of pensions,” Bailey Childers of the National Public Pension Coalition said, “the source is almost always John Arnold.” In 2012, Arnold left Centaurus Advisors to be a full time “philanthropist” in the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
Despite the enormity of the Arnold Ventures network, they have maintained a low profile. The scant media coverage they have received often portrays them as benevolent. In one interview, John was described as “The most prolific philanthropist you may not have heard of.” Fortune magazine called him a “wunderkind” and “one of the least-known billionaires in the U.S..”
While projecting themselves as an altruistic billionaire couple who want to change the world for the better, the Arnolds have spent huge sums on school privatization and reform of the criminal justice system, even funding the Obama Administration’s “Data-Driven Justice Initiative”.
The Arnolds involved themselves in numerous social justice causes, providing themselves with public relations cover. In July 2019, Laura joined the board of REFORM Alliance, founded by rap mogul Jay-Z and Meek Mill. The couple also funded criminal justice advocacy group, the Innocence Project.
While on one hand funding progressive causes that sought to reduce unjust prison sentences, the Arnolds also gave $360,00 to the Baltimore Police Department for a secret aerial surveillance program.
John Arnold is also overseeing Harris County and Houston’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup, and has appeared at multiple events with Hidalgo.
Hidalgo takes power
In January 2019, as Lina Hidalgo took the most powerful office in one of the most populous counties in the country, the Arnolds restructured their nonprofit, the Arnold Foundation, into a for-profit corporation named Arnold Ventures LLC. This move followed a year of what the foundation’s president Kelli Rhee called “internal strategy conversations.” While losing their non-profit tax exemption, converting into an LLC allowed them to spend unlimited amounts with near total anonymity – what one research firm called a “black hole” for public disclosure.
The recomposition from a philanthropic foundation to an explicitly for-profit corporation adopted the strategy of several of the most influential billionaires in the world, including Microsoft co-founder and vaccine profiteer Bill Gates, late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. All channel funds to political action and money-making operations from their charitable foundations, networks and initiatives.
“The creation of Arnold Ventures is another example of billionaire donors becoming ever more sophisticated about using private wealth to influence public policy—wielding exponentially more power in American life than ordinary citizens of more modest means,” reads a profile on the Arnolds in Inside Philanthropy. “The model behind Arnold Ventures is also a reminder that the lines between different forms of influence spending by the super-wealthy keep blurring. Yet while there are multiple organizations dedicated to limiting one form of such spending—political campaign donations—there is no comparable push to rein in philanthropic giving that often aims to achieve the exact same legislative goals that animate campaign donors.”
Through Arnold Ventures and its predecessor, John and Laura Arnold spent more than $1.1 billion between 2011 and 2019 advising federal, state and local government policy. Their influence machine is bipartisan – funding both the Democratic Party and Republican-aligned super PACs, and politicians from both parties including Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), as well as Republican members of Congress Sen. Ted Cruz, the late Sen. John McCain and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, among others.
They have worked directly with the Obama administration on the “police reform” Data-Driven Justice Initiative, collecting data that “collectively represent more than 94 million Americans.”
The Arnolds’ carefully crafted image as benevolent philanthropists has been bolstered through funding media outlets like the Houston Chronicle, the largest newspaper in Texas. This has paid off in what amounts to unofficial Arnold Venture’s public relations releases published in the Chronicle declaring that they “use philanthropy to help balance societal inequities.” Arnold Ventures has also funded the Texas Tribune with $1.5 million for an “investigative unit.”
Their PR has been shored up through hiring top Houston-area media figures. Three months after Lina Hidalgo took office, Houston Chronicle opinion editor and editorial board member Evan Mintz was hired as Arnold Ventures’ Communications Manager. Former Chronicle editor-in-chief and executive vice president Jeff Cohen joined Arnold Ventures as Executive Vice President of Communications. Cohen’s wife, Kathryn Kase, is Lina Hidalgo’s legal counsel.
As the Arnolds converted their influence machine into a for profit corporation, they awarded a $1.1 million grant to PFM Consulting LLC, a Philadelphia -based financial management firm notorious for advising “fiscal sustainability” plans that slash pensions and eliminate benefits for public employees. PFM had previously been contracted by the City of Houston and has advised and been contracted by state, county and local governments across the country, including Kentucky, Arkansas, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Lancaster and Scranton, Pennsylvania, Golden, Colorado, Burlington, Vermont, and Santa Rosa County, Florida among others.
Within days, Hidalgo awarded a $2.72 million contract to PFM to design a plan to restructure the county government and offices. Paid more than $5 million by Harris County, PFM’s report recommended 220 “action steps designed to put the county on a path to reform.”
These steps would begin the process of restructuring Harris County’s economic and political structure according to the diktats of neoliberal finance professionals, similar to the crushing austerity measures imposed on numerous countries around the world following regime change operations.
Not only was Lina Hidalgo connected to Arnold Ventures through the Texas Policy Lab and PFM Consulting Group, she also hired former Arnold Ventures staff as advisors. In April 2019, just three months into Hidalgo’s term, she named Erica Brown, former Arnold Ventures Director of Public Health, as a Senior Policy Advisor.
In March 2021, Hidalgo hired epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, who spent years working for Arnold Ventures, as a senior science advisor.
Hidalgo and Texas Policy Lab crush Houston’s working class
Over the months following Hidalgo and the Texas Policy Lab’s lockdows, the pre-existing economic disparities that had plagued Houston’s workers and poor reached unprecedented levels that have yet to recover.
The order forced small businesses to close according to criteria developed by the Department of Homeland Security, the security state apparatus created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that has rolled back civil liberties and surveilled American citizens while becoming the largest federal law enforcement agency in the United States.
Ironically, a study co-sponsored by Arnold Ventures provides some of the better data on the economic and social devastation wrought primarily by the lockdowns its beneficiaries in the Texas Policy Lab designed.
“A majority of people who live in Harris County say they’ve suffered financial troubles during COVID-19 and almost half say they or someone in their household has lost a job, lost a business, or had their wages or hours reduced,” the study found. However, these results are portrayed as a result of COVID-19, rather than the policy choices that were implemented ostensibly in response to the virus.
Another study from Understanding Houston, an NGO funded by Houston’s elite business class and international corporations, describes the most severe economic crash Houston had ever suffered. Between March and April, 2020, the first months of Hidalgo’s lockdowns, Houston’s unemployment rate more than tripled from less than 4% to 14.6%. At the same time, 361,400 jobs were lost – more than the 226,100 jobs lost in the 1987 oil bust and the 120,500 jobs lost in the 2008 Great Recession combined. Desperation set in for laid off workers as more than 905,000 residents filed for unemployment insurance in Harris County between March 7, 2020 and July 10, 2021. Lower-income workers in the service industry such as in retail, restaurants and bars, and accommodation bore the brunt of the lockdowns, as businesses closed their doors.
As Houston’s residents were expunged from the labor force, hunger rates skyrocketed. 15% of households reported “often” or “sometimes” not having enough to eat, rates that increased to 20% among families with children.
Despite federal and local efforts to prevent them, Houston’s poor residents have faced unprecedented evictions, forcing families into shelters, their cars and the streets. Between March 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021, 57,000 evictions were filed in Harris County, placing it among the top three areas for evictions in the United States.
All the while, Hidalgo continued to look to the Arnold Ventures-funded TPL to craft her policy.
“All along, our response to this crisis has been guided by science, research and expertise,” Hidalgo said in a May 1, 2020 statement. “Thousands of lives across Harris County depend on our work to respond to this crisis strategically, and we’re delighted to have the best and brightest minds from the Texas Policy Lab supporting our effort to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. We’re fortunate for their willingness to partner with us at such a critical time in our history.”
As Harris County’s residents were pushed to new levels of poverty, desperation and isolation, Hidalgo sought to extend and strengthen lockdowns at every turn. Hidalgo ordered county parks closed for the 2020 Easter weekend, despite minimal risk of contracting COVID-19 outside. Her maximalist approach was even stricter than that of Houston’s Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner, who himself had ordered the removal of basketball rims at city parks.
“We shouldn’t have to tell people not to be in a park that’s crowded where you can’t engage in social distancing,” Turner said. “Police officers shouldn’t have to come and tell you no, but if we must, we must. But I don’t think that as a governmental leader, that I should dictate everything you do as if you don’t have a mind of your own.”
Hidalgo earned praise in establishment media outlets for fighting Governor Greg Abbott’s efforts to end lockdowns. “The Latina Progressive Who Faced Down Texas Republicans,” a headline in Politico read.
In October 2020, when Abbott signed an order banning mask and vaccine mandates, Hidalgo lashed out, accusing him of threatening public health. “It’s like as if [sic] the governor were telling me I can’t issue an order to evacuate the coastal areas when a hurricane is barreling toward us,” she said. “This is a crisis. This is not an issue to play politics with.”
In November 2020, Hidalgo began another push for lockdowns. “We now know inevitably another pull-back is necessary. It’s going to be coming soon, I’m sure,” she said.
COVID-19 cash cow
While Hidalgo and Arnold Ventures’ lockdowns destroyed small businesses and sunk Houston’s beleaguered residents into even more desperation, the federal government passed the March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) on March 27, 2020.
The CARES Act slotted $426 million to Harris County, almost all of which was immediately allocated. The largest expenditure was $67,575,040 to COVID-19 Emergency Direct Assistance, which offered 40,000 people a one time payment of $1,500. This fund was bolstered with a $1 million grant from Arnold Ventures. Administration of the program was outsourced to Catholic Charities, an NGO whose executives were paid six-figure salaries.
$33,300,000 went to the Small Business Relief Fund and was administered by Liftfund, a non-profit founded by top Texas bankers that has become the country’s largest microlender. Liftfund’s annual report shows it is also funded by billionaire Mackenzie Scott, as well as numerous banks and corporations. The company’s president and CEO Janie Barrera is a former Federal Reserve advisor and was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability. Liftfund’s Board of Directors includes Wayne Alexander, former president of SBC bell, a subsidiary of AT&T, and includes bankers from Wells Fargo, Capital One and JP Morgan Chase.
In June 2020, as small businesses were destroyed by the pandemic, the TPL published a proposal to implement a new authority with the power to shut down businesses that did not meet its standard of public health. This “scoring system would be designed to rate adherence to specific COVID-19 prevention practices” and demand a “risk-based schedule for inspections.” These rules would be constantly subject to change. “Grading criteria can be revised as information on COVID-19 evolves,” the proposal states. Alternatively, the study proposed businesses that do not pass the constantly shifting grading system would be marked in “a gold star program.”
The management of Harris County’s $40 million CARES Act rent relief program was contracted to BakerRipley, the largest charity NGO in Texas. Though the program was ostensibly aimed to provide relief to renters facing eviction, it required landlords to enroll before tenants could access the funds. By December 2020, only $14 million of the allocated $40 million had been paid out.
“These millions of dollars left on the table highlight the fact that so many landlords have refused rent relief in favor of eviction,” said Lone Star Legal Aid attorney Dana Karni.
Meanwhile, Harris County courts held hundreds of eviction hearings every week, and BakerRipley’s executives were paid six figure salaries. While figures are not available for the year 2020, financial documents from 2019 show BakerRipley’s 16 employees making six figures salaries, with CEO Claudia Aguirre paid $310,115 and $22,531 in other benefits.
Between May 2020 and February 2022, the Harris County Commissioner’s Court, with Hidalgo at the helm, paid over $126 million to BakerRipley, with an additional $8.2 million approved on April 26 for eviction services.
Permanent remote learning regime
Since their early days in politics, the Arnolds have been major pushers of school privatization, having spent hundreds of millions in California, Missouri and Louisiana. Laura Arnold is a former board member at Teach for America, the organization that placed hastily-trained college graduates in classrooms in poverty-stricken neighborhoods while fueling privatization schemes.
They are also involved in virtual learning, having funded a platform called Edx, which had been in development since 2012, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and military-industrial giant Boeing, and bolstered with $17 million from Arnold Ventures.
Across the United States, school closures and virtual learning devastated school age children, subjecting them to increased domestic violence, while social isolation led to upticks in depression, anxiety and suicide. A National Institute of Health study estimated that 5.5 million life years of primary school-aged children were lost because of the school closures. This led the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to declare a state of emergency for children and youth mental health. After school closures were lifted, high school students were described as “fifth or sixth graders but in a big body.
Even the CDC acknowledged that virtual learning can do more harm than good, stating that it “might present more risks than in-person instruction related to child and parental mental and emotional health and some health-supporting behaviors.”
Using the rubric developed by Texas Policy Lab, Hidalgo’s lockdown orders shuttered schools across Harris County, forcing the education system into a virtual learning regime and sending students into a downward spiral.
“We have over a million more children below grade level relative to what would happen in a normal year in the state of Texas,” said Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, comparing the setback to that of students who moved to Texas after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Indeed, testing showed a dramatic setback. “Districts with a higher%age of students learning virtually experienced larger learning declines in all grades and subjects,” the Texas Education Agency found. The number of students failing to meet mathematics standards nearly doubled, from 27.5% in 2019 to 52.3% in 2021. When the 2020-2021 school year began, 10,000 of the previous year’s 210,000 Houston Independent School District (HISD) students did not return.
In August 2020, Hidalgo published the “Roadmap to Reopening” plan, which contained guidelines for schools to reopen. This was an extension of the Harris County COVID tracking system that the Texas Policy Lab had designed. It called for a ban on in-person learning until the Harris County tracker, which Hidalgo controls, dropped below ‘Red Alert’, its highest level. This would only happen when the 14-day rolling average of new daily COVID-19 cases was under 400, the test positivity rate was below 5% and less than 15% of patients in intensive care units and general hospital beds were positive for COVID-19, benchmarks that were still many weeks away.
While Hidalgo cited the threat of COVD-19 to children as a reason for maintaining closures, the risk they face is remarkably small. By February 2021, only 134 children in the United States aged 0 to 14 had died from COVID-19 – a tiny fraction of the 28,700 that died from all other causes. Meanwhile, 48 children died in Harris County of child abuse and neglect in 2020, a crisis exacerbated by school closures Hidalgo ordered in the name of protecting children.
The TPL called for implementation of “pandemic safeguards” to prevent multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, though did not define the threat to children or what measures they proposed. Hidalgo’s plan was met with stiff resistance as ten superintendents signed a letter in opposition, complaining that the metrics outlined were “not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”
As school closures upended children’s lives and forced parents to choose between abandoning their children or their incomes, Hidalgo allotted $47,108,426 for 120,000 Wi-Fi access hubs and devices, establishing infrastructure for permanent distance learning, what was billed as “COVID 19 Digital Access for Students.” This represented the second largest expenditure of Harris County’s CARES Act funds, far more than the $1 million designated for court eviction services. $19 million went to Harris County’s distribution of internet-capable devices, branded as “Operation Connectivity.” Another $13 million of the fund was assigned to ‘Project 10 Million,’ a virtual learning program launched by telecom giant T-Mobile. In April 2021, the telecom giant Comcast announced it would install Wi-Fi “Lift Zones” in Harris County and community centers throughout the country, in addition to a billion-dollar effort over the next decade to advance “digital equity” and equip homes with free internet for distance learning. Two months later, Hidalgo authorized an additional $3.2 million in CARES Act funds for Wi-Fi.
In May 2021, the TPL released another set of criteria for reopening schools, stressing the importance of vaccinating children.
In August 2021, schools began to reopen, Though the re-opening ostensibly eliminated the need for destructive distance learning, Harris County and its corporate partners spent enormous amounts to continue building distance learning infrastructure.
School Board deception
Throughout the pandemic, Hidalgo earned praise from liberal institutions. In April 2021, she was given the Kennedy Center New Frontier Award for COVID-19 policies. Past recipients include former McKinsey consultant and current Transportation secretary candidate Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
“Despite facing significant opposition from the largely Republican county, Hidalgo called for closings and mask mandates early on in the pandemic,” read the award’s description. “Hidalgo was questioned and harassed over her decisions to put the safety of the residents first.”
The following month, Hidalgo received another award from the Democratic party linked political action committee EMILY’s List, described by the Texas Tribune as “a designation that brings with it exposure to national donors and other powerful Democratic constituencies.” In July, she received the Maclovio Barraza Award for Leadership from Unidos Dos, and appeared at a conference sponsored by Bank of America, with President Biden delivering a virtual address at the event.
In May 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning government entities, including schools, from issuing mask mandates. Soon after, Hidalgo threw her support behind school mask mandates, spurring a legal battle that has gone to the Texas supreme court.
On August 12, 2021, the Houston Independent School District was slated to hold a school board meeting to discuss a possible mask mandate.
The largest in Texas, HISD is one of eleven that Houston-area districts Arnold Ventures influences through funding Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium. While promising to “solve longstanding problems inside the education system,” the school closures advised by Arnold Ventures’ Texas Policy Lab led to a dramatic surge in dropouts.
Hours before the school board meeting, the Texas Tribune, a media outlet heavily funded by Arnold Ventures and the Gates Foundation, published an alarming report saying that 5,800 hospitalized children in Texas had COVID-19, though not specifying what conditions they were hospitalized for or if they had contracted COVID-19 while hospitalized.
Shortly before the meeting commenced, the Texas Tribune quietly issued an enormous correction on its article, admitting that 783 children, not 5,800, had been hospitalized in the past several weeks, though still not clarifying the reason they were hospitalized.
But at 5:33 p.m. CST, as parents were discussing their rejection of mask mandates, KHOU 11 published Hidalgo’s pre-recorded announcement that the mandate would immediately go into effect.
“We are seeing the highest number of children in our hospitals than we’ve seen in the entire pandemic,” she declared – echoing the false claim from the Tribune. “We have no choice,” she wrote on Twitter.
With all of the CARES Act funds allocated immediately, American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) would provide the next federal funding source for Hidalgo to pillage. Passed in March 2021, ARPA was billed as one of “the most progressive pieces of legislation in history”, and one that would reverse the economic devastation Americans had suffered throughout the pandemic.
With another $914 million from the federal government, Hidalgo’s March 2021 County Commision agenda letter called to “identify and prioritize investment opportunities, leveraging related research, strategic plans, and outside experts” – a reference to the army of corporate consultants that had advised every major decision she made since announcing her candidacy. With a 3-2 majority on the commissioner’s court and power consolidated under County Administrator Dave Berry, there was little oversight and Hidalgo’s opponents were all but powerless to stop her and Arnold Ventures’ agenda.
While Hidalgo boasted about her leadership of the county’s efforts to revive the local economy, the entirety of the Small Business Fund would amount to the same cost of a single measure that failed to provide any benefit. In April 2020, Hidalgo authorized the construction of a makeshift medical tent, contracted to a private firm called Garner Environmental Services for a $60 million price tag, justifying the site as a contingency plan in case hospitals were overloaded. However, this scenario never happened. Having already spent $17 million, the site was closed without having served a single patient, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised to reimburse 75% of those costs.
As the first surge predicted by Hidalgo never materialized and the medical tent was deconstructed, she opened a new medical facility inside Houston’s NRG arena in anticipation of what she called a second wave of COVID overflow. This, she said, would cost $200,000 per month to maintain readiness. If activated, the cost would increase to $1.5 million per month.
“It really doesn’t make a lot of sense at this point. When I hear people talk about ‘in case there’s a second surge,’ last time I checked, we didn’t have the first surge,” said Ed Emmett, who Hidalgo had replaced as county judge.
Yet again, the COVID-19 wave did not materialize. Instead, the NRG medical facility was used as a mass vaccination site, before it was finally shut down in August 2021. This was not an isolated incident as emergency medical facilities were constructed around the country for surges that never came.
‘Pawns in Hidalgo’s game’
The very day that Hidalgo’s makeshift hospital tent was shut down, she issued a decree applicable to anyone 10 years old and above, ordering that masks be worn at all times in all outdoor public places, strict adherence to CDC social distancing guidelines, residents wash their hands before leaving home and upon their return and to avoid touching their noses and faces after leaving home. Hidalgo’s order made these criminal violations, with offenders subject to a $1,000 fine, with few exceptions. The Texas Government Code policy that Hidalgo’s decree relied on also stipulated that jail sentences of up to 180 days would be legal. Effectively, Hidalgo’s orders made it a criminal offense for a child to step onto a public sidewalk with their mask momentarily slipped off of their nose.
“This is not a police state,” Hidalgo said at a press conference. “This is about laying down the marker for what we’re doing…We have to make clear, it’s not a recommendation.”
Hidalgo’s order was met with swift and widespread outrage from police officials that would be tasked with enforcing the mandate. “We do not have time to be pawns in Hidalgo’s game of attempting to control the actions of law abiding, tax paying individuals of our community,” Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi remarked, adding that police were already dealing with a 35% increase in murders and a 30% increase in burglaries.
“The citizens of Harris County are working hard together through this pandemic and do not need the added stress and fear of being fined or arrested for failing to wear a mask/face covering they may not have,” said Harris County Deputies Organization’s president David Cuevas.
“Her abuse of the use of executive orders is the ultimate government overreach. These kind of confused government policies fuel public anger – and rightfully so,” said Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
After widespread outrage, the order was amended to be a recommendation and the fine was removed.
Closing hospitals and blaming the unvaccinated
In May 2021, as COVID vaccines became available, Hidalgo portrayed them as a divine intervention that would end the pandemic and return Harris county to normalcy.
“The good news is, it’s beginning to be over. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I just had my second Moderna shot about a week ago, and it was such a relief. I finally felt the full weight of the blessing that is having vaccines. It’s like we’ve been given this gift, and all we have to do is accept it,” Hidalgo boasted, echoing op-eds published by Arnold Ventures executives.
At the NRG press conference, Hidalgo unveiled an initiative paying people $100 to sign a waiver and take the vaccine. Notably, the public announcement did not include any requirement for identification, leaving the program open to repeat customers.
At a July press conference, she warned of “misinformation,” urging vaccination and accusing the unvaccinated of killing their fellow citizens. “We need individuals to recognize that they’re moving from a point of hesitancy to a point of enabling this virus, enabling these hospitalizations and enabling these deaths. And so we have got to draw a line there,” she said.
Alongside Hidalgo was Dr. Peter Hotez, the Baylor College of Medicine pediatrician and MSNBC favorite who has called to criminalize “antiscience aggression.” Hotez has received more than $9.5 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is headed Dr. Antony Fauci, and his institution has taken at least $8 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Hotez too lashed out at the unvaccinated. “Anybody who is hospitalized or is in an ICU from COVID right now is there by choice,” he said, “because they didn’t make the effort to get vaccinated, and that’s what we need to fix”. “Anyone who’s unvaccinated and has been lucky enough to escape COVID, your luck is about to run out.”
A week later, the CDC published data confirming that the vaccines do not stop transmission of the virus. CDC director Rochelle Walensky admitted as much on CNN, saying “What they can’t do anymore is prevent transmission,” contradicting her statement two months earlier that “vaccinated people do not carry the virus.”
Despite the official admission and 180-degree reversal, Hidalgo stuck with the old story in contradiction to the CDC. In a press conference outside NRG Stadium, the second overflow site she ordered constructed, she continued to promote vaccination as a method for defeating the virus while lambasting the unvaccinated. “The ticket out of the pandemic is the vaccine,” she complained. “Enough is enough, look at what you’re doing to our hospitals by not getting the vaccine.”
While Hidalgo accused the unvaccinated of overwhelming hospitals, she was silent as landlords abruptly forced a Houston hospital to shut down and sent police to prevent doctors from obtaining medical equipment to treat patients in the parking lot.
With Hidalgo mired in scandal and facing stiff competition in the upcoming November 7 election, her future remains unknown; she could win another term as county judge, or find herself behind bars.
Feature photo | Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, right, asks a question during a tour inside the intensive care unit of the new Harris County Non-Congregate Medical Shelter at NRG Park, April 11, 2020, in Houston. David J. Phillip | AP
Dan Cohen is the Washington DC correspondent for Behind The Headlines. He has produced widely distributed video reports and print dispatches from across Israel-Palestine. He tweets at @DanCohen3000.