HOUSTON — A bribery scandal that ensnared a Houston Community College trustee has led to the dismissal late Friday of city Public Works Director Karun Sreerama.
Sreerama, a well-known business icon whose company has won millions of dollars in contracts with HCC, worked with the federal government in its bribery case against college system Trustee Chris Oliver.
Sreerama on Friday also said he’s never given a bribe. He did say that before working with the FBI he had provided Oliver $77,000 in loans with no expectation of favoritism in return.
Mayor Sylvester Turner placed Sreerama on leave two weeks ago soon after Sreerama’s role providing money to Oliver became public in Oliver’s guilty plea. Less than a day after The Texas Monitor published additional information about both Oliver’s and Sreerama’s actions surrounding the bribery scheme, the public works director was out.
“Karun Sreerama has accomplished much in Houston as a businessman and involved citizen,” Turner said in a written statement. “I am sure he will continue to be an asset to our community. However, he and I have agreed that it would be best for the city for him to step down as director of the city Public Works and Engineering Department.”
Houston council member Greg Travis praised Turner’s move.
“I agree and support this decision,” Travis said on Twitter.
Sreerama called a press conference after Turner’s statement, saying he wanted “to put out the truth.”
“I have been a victim,” he said in front of United States Federal Courthouse in downtown Houston. “I was victimized by a corrupt politician.”
He lashed out at media coverage.
“I have been unfairly, inaccurately, and unjustly labeled as somebody who gave bribes,” he said. “This is total nonsense.”
Court records name Sreerama as a “victim” of Oliver. Both Sreerama and his attorney have said the businessman fully cooperated with law enforcement.
When he paid $12,000 to Oliver between May 2015 and May 2016, he was working with the FBI, Sreerama said. Those payments to Oliver was money provided by the FBI and made largely in $2,500 increments and in cash.
Turner named Sreerama the director of the city’s largest department — boasting a $2.1 billion budget — this past spring. Sreerama said that he was told at the time by law enforcement not to talk about the pending case against Oliver, he said.
“I am paying the price for a good deed,” Sreerama said.
Some of Sreerama’s statements Friday did not jibe with federal court records.
He said he never gave any unlawful payments to Oliver, but federal documents suggest that the $77,000 in loan money was an unlawful payment.
“I never made any unlawful payments,” he said. “What I did do was I assisted the FBI to catch a criminal, catch a crooked official and bring him to jail.”
It was after those payments totaling $77,000 to Oliver that Sreerama was approached by the FBI and that he agreed to help the federal government in its case.
The loans were not repaid, Sreerama said.
Sreerama provided only hazy information about how and why he was approached by the FBI to begin with.
Asked why he did not report Oliver’s initial solicitations to federal authorities, Sreerama said he expected the loans to be repaid.
“I made a loan to Chris Oliver,” Sreerama said. “Why would I go to a federal authority when I made a loan, expecting him to pay it back to me?”
Sreerama said Friday that the last time he got a contract from HCC was in 2010, but the Houston Chronicle noted that HCC records show that he signed at least one contract in 2011. “That agreement was for construction, maintenance and renovation on an as-needed basis,” the paper reported.
He denied Friday giving money to other elected officials. He could not immediately recall campaign donations he made during the time in 2015 and 2016 that he was giving envelopes stuffed with cash to Oliver.
Sreerama was often forthcoming with campaign contributions. He walked in many governmental circles and was deft at closing deals. His company was ESPA Inc., an engineering firm that scooped up many government contracts, getting business from entities such as the Harris County Toll Road Authority, the Texas Department of Transportation, the Houston Independent School District, and the city of Houston.
He also had done work previously for HCC.
Sreerama held ESPA in 2012.
The Houston Community College system’s board of trustees censured Oliver earlier this month, removing him from his role as vice chair, and removing him from all committees.
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.
The college system has hired former Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Vidal Martinez to examine Houston Community College’s procurement processes in the wake of Oliver’s guilty plea.
Oliver’s sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 13.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.