HOUSTON — For years, the rumors persistently followed Houston Community College Trustee Chris 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 last month about Oliver’s guilty plea in a federal bribery sting. He is accused of pocketing nearly $90,000 from a major HCC vendor, according to court records.
Did anyone suspect Oliver before his arrest and guilty plea before a federal judge?
Some certainly noticed the small things.
There was the time Oliver filed a worker’s compensation claim with the college, even though trustees are a college system “worker” in the loosest sense of the word since there is no salary associated with the elected post. The claim was eventually denied, a spokeswoman said.
And Oliver asked for cash advances from the college on a regular basis. HCC rules say that trustees can get cash advances for travel with approval from the trustee’s board chair or from the college system’s chancellor.
Between 2013 and 2016, records show that Oliver received $2,081 from the college labeled as either a “cash advance” or an “advance for incidentals and miscellaneous.” No other trustee during that time asked for any cash advances.
But there were bigger clues, too. Red flags. Ones that were difficult to ignore for college administrators, fellow trustees, plugged-in power brokers in the Harris County orbit, and by government prosecutors.
“You know he’s dirty, the rest of the trustees know he’s dirty, but no one wants to say anything,” said Dave Wilson, an HCC trustee who has been critical of many of the financial deals the college has entered into, as well as how vendors are selected.
When asked why he believes no one in power called out Oliver, Wilson provided a number of reasons. It is difficult to be the lone voice accusing a colleague of wrongdoing. He also suggests that “others in power may be dirty, too, and don’t want to rock the boat.”
“They want to get their piece of the pie, so why not let him get his piece of the pie,” Wilson said.
No one in power sounded the alarm to the voters in Oliver’s district, an alligator-shaped territory in south Harris County that stretches from the borders of Missouri City to Brookside Village.
Oliver was first elected in 1995, served stints as the board’s chairman, and sat on key committees. When federal prosecutors on July 7 unsealed his guilty plea, he was the sitting vice-chairman of the board of trustees and he chaired the board’s audit committee.
He had helped oversee a college system with a budget north of $300 million, as well as a $425 million bond program, which was aimed at erecting 14 construction projects at all of the colleges in the Houston Community College system.
All that money can be a recipe for corruption, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston and author of several books on politics and political scandal.
“When it comes to scandals, some of the big indicators include a growth of government spending in general as being associated with more potential scandals,” Rottinghaus said. “You have more money changing hands, you’ve got more building, you’ve got more opportunity for graft.”
At HCC, the opportunity was certainly there.
And red flags began flapping around Oliver years ago.
The Texas Monitor left several messages on Oliver’s phone seeking comment for this report. The last attempt to reach Oliver by phone was made Wednesday. At that time the phone played a message suggesting that service was shut off for non-payment.
2010 Probe: More inquiry into Oliver “justified”
Oliver was one of four trustees examined in a 2010 investigation into “compliance and procurement issues” involving former and current members of the HCC Board of Trustees and HCC vendors. HCC hired a Houston law firm, Smyser Kaplan & Veselka, to conduct the probe.
The probe’s results, which became known as the “Veselka report,” found that Oliver engaged in conduct “contrary to HCC Board policy” and created “at least an appearance of impropriety” by failing to disclose that his company, Tekoa Property Management, had been hired by HCC vendor Fort Bend Mechanical.
Oliver also failed to disclose his relationship with the vendor while reviewing and voting on contracts from which the company would benefit, including an April 2010 vote approving $200,000 in additional money for a Fort Bend Mechanical project.
The investigation found that Oliver filed a conflict of interest disclosure regarding that relationship only after being informed of his requirement to do so by college attorneys.
In the wake of the investigation, attorney Larry Veselka, who led the probe, sent a memo dated Oct. 22, 2010, to then-Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos. The memo recommended in part that “further inquiry could be justified to confirm there was no quid-pro-quo understanding or that the arrangement or understanding did not constitute a prohibited gift to a public servant.”
No further inquiry was ever made.
The only punishment Oliver received was a reprimand from his fellow trustees in 2011.
An HCC trustee reprimand is just that. A reprimand. Essentially, a public announcement of condemnation, with no other punishment attached to it.
And while Oliver was reprimanded, he by no means was chastised by other trustees.
Then-HCC Board Chairman Richard Schechter described Oliver’s conduct as “a one-time action that was inadvertent or at worst a one time mistake.”
Oliver at that meeting conveyed his “most humble and sincere apologies.”
“In the final analysis,” Oliver said, “Those of us in leadership must avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
Schechter spoke too soon on Oliver’s conduct being a one-time misstep.
And Oliver did not listen to his own analysis. Nor, it appears, were his apologies sincere.
While Oliver was apologizing to the public and to his fellow trustees, court records suggest he was asking another HCC vendor for tens-of-thousands of dollars.
That vendor was Houston business icon Karun Sreerama, who owned the civil engineering and construction management firm ESPA which raked in close to $10 million worth of business from HCC.
And it would be Sreerama who ultimately provided the testimony that led to Oliver’s arrest just a few years later.
The undercover recording by the undercover reporter
If Lykos or college officials had done a little more digging, they might have found what Wayne Dolcefino found just a year later.
Dolcefino was the longtime investigative face of KTRK-TV’s 13 Undercover, winning dozens of local Emmy Awards, enough medals from the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization to make Michael Phelps envious, and an Edward R. Murrow award — TV’s version of the Pulitzer Prize.
He now runs Dolcefino Consulting, which investigates corruption and wrongdoing for corporate and political clients.
“We have a horrific culture of pay to play in this town,” Dolcefino said. “It has been going on for years in virtually every major government agency. Anyone who says that’s not true is not telling you the truth.”
While working for a client in 2012, Dolcefino secretly recorded David “Pete” Medford, the president of Fort Bend Mechanical, the company that was so cozy with Chris Oliver. Medford had been paying Oliver to — supposedly — provide some clean-up work at a house Medford was building, he said on the recording.
Medford was paying Oliver $9,000 a month.
“Nine grand! Nine grand a month to clean someone’s yard,” Dolcefino quipped to The Texas Monitor. “Where do I sign up?”
But by the time Medford was talking to Dolcefino and his recording device, Medford and Oliver were no longer so cozy.
“He sort of realized the votes were too close on his deals and decided to check,” Dolcefino said. “He found out that Oliver was walking out of the room and abstaining. So he was taking the nine grand and not even doing what he was supposedly bribed to do.”
Medford said in part on the recording: “What Chris did was, and one of the reasons we parted ways, and I didn’t know he was doing this, but he was abstaining from votes and I was paying him $9,000 a month. I was wondering why we weren’t getting any votes. He was abstaining from votes, so I cut Chris off.”
This recording was widely distributed around Houston. It was also played as part of the court record in a 2016 federal civil bribery case against both Medford and former Houston Independent School District President Larry Marshall.
“The entire tape was played in evidence at a public trial,” Dolcefino said. “No one can say they didn’t have an opportunity to know it. And nearly five years ago this tape was given to the FBI.”
At the trial, Medford, whose company had also done significant work for HISD, said that he was simply bragging for Dolcefino on the recording, which was largely about how Medford paid Marshall so that Fort Bend Mechanical could secure contracts.
But the jury didn’t think Medford was bragging. Both Marshall and Medford were found liable for racketeering and slapped with a multimillion-dollar judgment. The verdict is being appealed.
Loose with promises
If Medford’s recording about Oliver is more truth than fiction, then it wasn’t the last time that Oliver pocketed money in return for favors he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — deliver.
The bribery scheme in which federal investigators began 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. That’s in the timeframe when Oliver was giving his “humble and sincere apologies” for casting a vote in favor of Medford’s Fort Bend Mechanical while collecting cash from Medford.
Sreerama recently described to reporters that the $77,000 were a series of “loans.”
Federal prosecutors described that money as “unlawful payments,” related to an extortion charge dropped as a part of Oliver’s plea agreement.
Either way, by 2015 Oliver was looking for more money.
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,” 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 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.
Loose with record keeping, too
While Oliver may have been loose with his promises to big-pocketed vendors, he was just as loose with details when it came to his campaign financial disclosures.
Oliver was sloppy and perhaps worse in keeping campaign finance records.
The Texas Ethics Commission found that in 2011 and 2012, Oliver did not always properly disclose campaign donations and that he did not itemize some of his expenditures.
And there is no evidence that Oliver filed a campaign finance report for the dates covering January 2016 through July 2016, as required by law.
Oliver accepted at least one $1,000 donation during that time. That donation came from a political action committee. PACs are required to report their donations with the Texas Ethics Commission, and so PAC donations to Oliver can be found.
Individual donors, such as many vendors or company owners, are not required to disclose their political contributions so it’s impossible for a voter to know how much Oliver collected over that period but failed to report.
It does not appear that anyone at the college alerted Oliver’s fellow board members about his failure to file. No one appears to have sounded the alarm at the Texas Ethics Commission, either.
It also does not appear that Oliver filed a campaign report for the most recent reporting period beginning in January and ending in July.
Again, Oliver collected at least $1,000 from a political action committee during that period. Again, no one at the college who collects the reports — and posts them to the HCC website — appears to have spoken up about Oliver’s recorded keeping failure.
And again, it’s impossible for a voter to know how much Oliver collected over that period and failed to report.
HCC officials did not respond to questions asking about this.
Fallout and future
What should be done?
HCC’s Board of Trustees has taken some action already.
The board’s eight other members voted last month unanimously at a special meeting to censure Oliver soon after his guilty plea was made public. Oliver did not attend.
The censure means he can’t hold an office on the board and that his travel money has been cut off, meaning no more cash advances.
But that’s all the board can do.
Oliver continues to be an HCC trustee. Trustees cannot remove one of their own. Only a state district judge has the power to pry any trustee from the board, at least until Oliver is sentenced. A convicted felon, once sentenced, cannot hold the post.
Oliver’s sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 13.
But censure or no, that action came after the fact, although college officials said they have researched other institutions for possible punishment rules beyond a censure and are summarizing the findings for the board.
And the Houston Community College — and other government institutions in Houston and Harris County for that matter — has no shortage of ethics rules designed to prevent this sort of behavior.
The Trustees, through Trustee Board Chair Eva Loredo, said they are open to learn from this.
“Our Board and Administration are working together to determine the lessons learned from the unfortunate situation involving Trustee Chris Oliver and will seek ways that we can improve going forward,” Loredo said in a written statement. “Now it is time for us to come together as a truly committed Board focused on protecting and moving Houston Community College forward.”
The experts interviewed for this piece — including some HCC trustees — all had ideas on how to keep something like this from happening again.
HCC Trustee Robert Glaser, who heads the trustee’s audit committee, said a fully staffed compliance department is needed at the college, as well as far more transparency in the college’s procurement system.
“We have rules that are so convoluted that it looks like the federal tax code,” Glaser said. “There’s a lot of subjectivity in the evaluation done on the procurement side that raises questions on why did this vendor get scored a three and this vendor over here get scored a four or a five.”
“If somebody is going astray, they need to be reminded in an assertive manner that they represent all of us and the institution and what they do just doesn’t reflect on themselves but on many other people,” Glaser said.
“That is a responsibility of us as individual board members.”
He added: “I would say on that we probably dropped the ball to a degree. With Trustee Oliver I’m not sure if anything we had said or done could have made a difference.”
Oliver likely made the “conscious choice” to take bribes “three train stops ago,” Glaser said.
Glaser also said that the trustee should be notified if a trustee is not filing his or her campaign finance reports.
“The notification and knowledge of the shortcomings of a particular board member with regard to his filings should be made to the board so we know what our fellow board member is doing or not doing,” he said. “It reflects on the entire board.”
University of Houston’s Rottinghaus agreed with Glaser.
“The best sanitizer for any kind of ethical problem is sunlight, and being vocal and being public about it is a way that a lot of these things become resolved,” he said. “There is a strong sense that in democratically elected or appointed positions there should be an openness and and an accountability. The goal in this case ought to be the full and immediate disclosure of potential wrongdoing.”
And investigative expert Dolcefino called on the District Attorney and the US Attorney to do more.
“The corruption is pretty much everywhere out there,” Dolcefino said. We all know it. The contractors know it. The FBI knows it. You have got to start prosecuting — locally — this stuff. It’s out there. It can be stopped.”
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.