Five months in, HCC leaders won’t put financial cap on Chris Oliver bribery probe

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HCC Trustee Chris Oliver (left)
HCC Trustee Chris Oliver (left)

HOUSTON — Houston Community College has hired a second attorney to assist in a college system-wide probe in the wake of the Trustee Chris Oliver bribery scandal and HCC officials have suggested there are no limits on what the cost of the investigation might ultimately be.

The latest attorney hired is Lawrence Finder, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, and a partner of Baker, McKenzie LLP. He joins Thompson & Horton partner Arturo Michel, whose examination is underway.

The unanswered question among HCC leaders is how much this review of college system practices, undertaken after Oliver pleaded guilty in a bribery scheme earlier this year, will ultimately cost the taxpayer.

“We don’t know what it’s going to cost,” HCC Trustee Chairwoman Eva Loredo told The Texas Monitor. “As you know, attorneys have their fees and so we just have to abide by their fee. More than anything… we want a complete investigation. We want it to be complete and as quick as possible.”

But will there be a point where the probe becomes too expensive?

“Hopefully not,” Loredo said, declining to comment on how much money the review might ultimately cost.

Finder was hired by HCC on Nov. 16, amidst of what appeared to be a tumult of attorney turnaround.

One attorney hired by HCC in July walked off the job two months later when he said he realized he had a conflict of interest in the matter. Another hired at the same time was booted from the job in September by HCC Trustees who thought his price tag was too hefty.

Both left a tab for taxpayers of $208,000 and an unfinished investigation.

On Oct. 31, HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado hired Michel to complete the probe that the two previous attorneys — former Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Vidal Martinez — left undone.

Michel, former attorney for the city of Houston, was criticized by some trustees as being too much of an insider — much like some trustees viewed Locke and Martinez. Indeed, Michel has served as HCC board counsel and his firm’s political action committee has been a frequent campaign contributor to HCC trustees, including giving $1,500 to Chris Oliver in 2015.

Finder is seen by many as more arms-length than the other attorneys that have taken a bite into the investigation. He is looking at a specific individual in the college system, trustees said, while Michel is looking at the institution overall.

But not everyone is happy about yet another attorney coming on board.

Not because of his qualifications.

But because of the unknown cost.

“I don’t know how much it’s going to be, as far as the investigative review,” said Robert Glaser, HCC Trustee and chair of the board’s audit committee. “I have no idea. I don’t.”

Glaser added: “And I’m not happy about it.”

Glaser was the lone vote against Finder’s hire.

Concurrently, an outside investigator is also examining practices at HCC — at no cost to taxpayers.

Frustrated at his fellow trustees hiring attorneys he believed had conflicts of interest, HCC Trustee Dave Wilson in August, out of his own pocket, hired longtime investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino, a former gumshoe for ABC13 KTRK-TV and who now runs his own communications office.

Dolcefino has suggested that his analysis will be released soon.

He won’t say what he has found so far, but an examination of Dolcefino’s public records requests filed with the college indicate he is looking at the high costs and high numbers of outside attorneys used by HCC, as well as conflicts of interests in connection with those attorneys.

Dolcefino has also filed requests for emails between the chancellor, his chief of staff, and HCC trustees. Dolcefino has also asked for cell phone records from trustees as well as the college system’s history of vendor payments exceeding $100,000.

The dueling investigations and the upheaval of HCC attorneys all stem from a bribery scandal swirling around Chris Oliver, HCC’s longest-serving trustee.

The public found Oliver pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge that was unsealed July 7.

He is accused of pocketing $12,000 from a major HCC vendor, according to court records.

It was a scandal that shook HCC and grabbed the attention of Houston’s political community.

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.”

Oliver is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 8, 2018.

The next HCC Trustee meeting is scheduled for Dec. 12.

You can read all of The Texas Monitor’s reports on HCC here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

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