Is he singing like a bird? HCC trustee’s sentencing in bribery case postponed again.

Chris Oliver
Chris Oliver

HOUSTON — Houston Community College Trustee Chris Oliver’s sentencing for his guilty plea in a bribery scheme has been postponed, the second time that his sentencing has been punted.

The new date for sentencing in federal court is set for Jan. 8, 2018.

Oliver, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to pocketing $12,000 from a major HCC vendor, was initially supposed to be sentenced in August. That date was then moved to Nov. 13.

The attorney representing Oliver did not respond to a request for comment.

The reason for the postponement is a mystery, but since it was agreed to by federal prosecutors with no objections, one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in Houston told The Texas Monitor that it’s likely Oliver is cooperating with authorities.

“They want a sentence hanging over his head,” said attorney Rusty Hardin, who has successfully defended baseball star Roger Clemens, as well as Victoria Osteen, wife of Houston TV evangelist Joel Osteen.

He is not involved in the Oliver case but has plenty of experience in similar cases.

Hardin said that while it’s impossible to know for sure what’s going on with the Oliver sentencing delay, “it’s likely they are are trying to make a case against others.”

Attorney Brooks Harrison agreed and said there is likely much going on behind the scenes.

“There’s always a possibility that any delay in sentencing is an adversarial phase, just like litigation, just like trial,” Harrison said. “His lawyers are doing everything they can to mitigate his punishment and who knows what the prosecution is doing. The judge is having to take all this in and the judge is having to work with them.”

Harrison added: “He could be singing like a bird. He could be clammed up and not saying a word to anybody.”

The delay could also be due to the judge wanting to do a deeper dive into the facts, according to attorney David Caraway.

“Sometimes when they postpone these sentences it’s to give the judge more time to look deeper into the facts, any mitigating facts that might give him a lighter sentence,” Caraway said. “With the dockets that some of these judges are carrying now, you can’t just come back tomorrow with a decision.”

Could Oliver be cooperating with federal officials?

“I’d be amiss to say that never happens, sure,” Caraway said.

News broke in July about Oliver’s guilty plea in a federal bribery sting.

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 — an HCC vendor — 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.”

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’d 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.

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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