HOUSTON — Less than three months after Houston Community College brought on special counsel to probe the way the college system hires vendors in the wake of the Trustee Chris Oliver bribery scandal, the attorneys picked for the job are no longer on the job.
They left behind an unfinished investigation and charged taxpayers $207,607.
The special counsel that had been hired were former Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Vidal Martinez.
Locke, whose firm Andrews & Kurth billed HCC just over $130,000 for the probe, withdrew after he said he had a conflict of interest — which some trustees said included links to Oliver. Martinez charged the college $77,600 before HCC trustees pulled the plug on his review, citing his high-dollar price tag.
Both attorneys have hourly rates well in excess of $500.
The attorney’s invoices were obtained through the state’s open records law.
Locke told The Texas Monitor that he had a conflict of interest but would not provide details. Some trustees said the conflict involved Locke hiring Oliver at some point in the recent past.
Martinez did not return calls seeking comment.
When the duo was hired on July 18 by HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado, critics pointed to Locke and Martinez as having too close ties to the college system, saying that both were known as politically connected insiders who may not be able to give HCC an unbiased examination.
Indeed, some Trustees told The Texas Monitor that both were too chummy with institution officials and other trustees to examine HCC with clear eyes.
Locke had served on the board in the 1990s, his firm is a political donor to trustees and has done business with the college.
Martinez has also been hired by the college in the past, has sponsored a high-end fundraiser for at least one prominent trustee, and has taken the board — along with their spouses — out for a lavish multi-course dinner.
HCC trustees balked earlier this month at bringing in new attorneys to investigate when they got sticker shock from the amount of money that completing the investigation might cost.
As it stands now, the investigation is incomplete, no findings have been made public, and no one seems to know what the next steps are to repair an institution that has been tarnished with one of its trustees pleading guilty to bribery, and which has been mired in controversy for years.
What’s the next step?
On Oct. 31, Maldonado hired attorney Arturo Michel to complete the probe that Locke and Martinez left undone.
Michel is the former attorney for the city of Houston and former HCC board counsel. His firm’s political action committee has been a frequent campaign contributor to HCC trustees, including giving $1,500 to Chris Oliver in 2015.
He’s yet another insider, some leaders told The Texas Monitor.
“We’re right back where we started,” said Trustee Robert Glaser, who chairs the board’s audit committee. “I’m concerned that we’re hiring another guy who is not sufficiently at arm’s length away from the college. He’s too close to the school. We’re going to have a clouded outcome no matter what we get as a result.”
Michel’s hire was done without consulting the trustees.
“I have met with Mr. Michel and he has agreed to accept the engagement as Special Counsel for this matter,” Maldonado wrote in a private memo to the Board of Trustees obtained by The Texas Monitor. “He is finalizing a project team and a budget for the next phase of the examination.”
The rest of the investigation could cost as much as $750,000, according to interviews with several trustees.
The bribery scandal
HHC is an institution that has had a long string of controversies.
But the Chris Oliver bribery scandal may have topped them all.
For years, rumors persistently followed Oliver. That he was dirty. On the take. That he traded for favors on his position as the longest-serving trustee of one of the largest community college systems in the United States.
News broke in July about Oliver’s guilty plea in a federal bribery sting.
He is accused of pocketing $12,000 from a major HCC vendor, according to court records.
The bribery scheme in which federal investigators were tracking Oliver began on May 29, 2015, when Oliver and local businessman Karun Sreerama met at a restaurant.
The two discussed how Oliver had helped Sreerama “secure business with HCC in the past, and how he could do so again in future endeavors,” according to a court transcript.
Sreerama also had previously supplied Oliver with $77,000.
Those payments from Sreerama to Oliver were doled out between December 2010 and August 2013, records show.
Sreerama later described that the $77,000 in payouts were a series of “loans.”
At the restaurant on that May 2015 day, Sreerama said he would pay Oliver approximately $2,500 per month “based on what he had paid him in the past,” court records show.
The next meeting took place at a coffee shop just days later on June 2, 2015. Sreerama handed Oliver an envelope filled with $2,500 in cash and Oliver told Sreerama that “if he found a contract to bid on and a certified company, he would make him a millionaire.”
And the envelopes kept coming.
By November 2015, Sreerama said he found a company to use in order to bid for a pest-control contract. At this meeting “Oliver discussed exerting his influence at HCC in order to move the company up the bid list so that they would have a better chance at securing the contract,” according to court records.
Oliver continued to collect envelopes filled with the FBI’s cash until May of last year.
“Oliver continued to insist that he had delayed the bidding process and that he would convince the board to vote on the basis of best value rather than lowest bid,” but Sreerama told Oliver he had had enough, and that the company he was using to bid on the pest control contract was not willing to pay Oliver any more money without some results, court records show.
At that point, and without delivering the promised results, “Oliver ended the relationship,” federal prosecutors said.
Oliver faces a sentencing hearing on Nov. 13.
Few seem happy with the state of HCC’s investigation three-and-a-half months after HCC hired its initial attorneys to investigate what led to the Oliver bribery scandal.
A new attorney — Lawrence Finder, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas — was proposed by HCC brass as the new investigator. He was voted down by the trustees.
Longtime investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino, who was hired by Trustee Dave Wilson to conduct an investigation congruent to the Locke and Martinez probe, appears particularly displeased at the process.
“This is the latest example of a place that is wasting so much money that it’s not funny anymore,” said Dolcefino said. “The simple reality is that HCC has so many issues. HCC is a troubled child. But hiring two insiders to conduct the investigation in the first place was a mistake.”
His biggest issue: HCC is fighting the release of the unfinished investigation conducted by Locke and Martinez so the public can’t see the work that was done.
“Now HCC is fighting the release of the documents that would tell us what the heck they did,” Dolcefino said. “Not only did we waste the money but now the public doesn’t even get to see what it is they found.”
Dolcefino also said that any new investigation should include why Locke banked $130,000 for his role in investigating the Oliver fallout before Locke realized he had a conflict.
“The fact he said, ‘Oops, I forgot about my conflict with Chris Oliver?’ Dolcefino said. “That should be investigated.”
Trustee Glaser told The Texas Monitor his biggest problem with the issue of hiring attorneys to investigate any issue dealing with Oliver dealt with a lack of transparency.
“The administration decided to do this on their own,” he said. “My opinion is that they should have involved the board in the decision-making process or how we were going to move ahead and work with the board in getting some folks who were truly arm’s length from the college… so there wouldn’t be any question at the end of the investigation/review that there weren’t any ties between these vendors, attorneys, the school or the board.”
Glaser added: “I personally think that the amount of money we’re spending is really out of hand.”
Maldonado defended his move in his memo to trustees. He said a speedy investigation — and therefore the speedy hiring of special counsel — is paramount.
“As you know, time is of the essence in this matter,” Maldonado wrote. “The work of the internal examination is important to determine if any elements in our processes facilitated Mr. Oliver’s bribery or if our processes can be improved to better protect against such behavior.”
But HCC Trustee Dave Wilson said there are some things that can fix potential pay-to-play problems at HCC.
“One of the things I want to do in procurement and that I’ve gotten poo-poo’d on is that a vendor could only work for the college for five years and then we have to have a new one,” he said.
He also questioned the amount of money that Locke and Martinez charged.
“I’ve looked at those bills and they purported that they were experts in the field of doing these kinds of investigations, and their bills show they did research to see what they had to do to make sure they were doing it right,” he said.
Another concern? The estimate of up to $750,000 to complete the probe.
“You know how first estimates go,” Wilson said. “It’s always more. That’s the first bite. They wade you out to the water knee deep and then they say, ‘we spent more time doing this so here’s another bill.’ You could get to $2 million easy.”
The HCC Board of Trustees will meet Nov. 9.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.