HOUSTON — In the wake of Houston Community College trustees announcing they will vote Thursday on censuring trustee Christopher Oliver after his guilty plea to a bribery charge, the bribery scheme has bled into Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration.
Karun Sreerama, a local business icon who was recently appointed Houston’s director of public works, allegedly made more than $77,000 in unlawful payments to Oliver, according to interviews and federal court records. He was placed on leave with pay today, with Turner saying he wanted to review the matter.
Oliver was arrested in March on bribery and extortion charges and he pleaded guilty to the count of bribery in May.
Oliver took $90,000 in bribes as an HCC trustee, with some of that coming in the form of VISA gift cards, according to court records. In the count that Oliver pleaded guilty to, prosecutors allege he accepted $12,000 in bribes.
Sreerama’s appointment to lead the city’s public works department was announced mid-March and he began the job April 3.
City Hall, HCC trustees, and the politically connected began buzzing about Sreerama when court records named someone with the initials K.C. as an extortion victim of Oliver.
Sreerama 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.
Sreerama attorney Chip Lewis described his client as a victim and said he was frustrated at the news that Sreerama was placed on leave — particularly since Sreerama helped federal law enforcement in the case against Oliver.
“I have a problem with someone who’s been a victim, they’ve assisted their federal government in a criminal investigation, and it’s being held against him,” Lewis told The Texas Monitor.
Lewis outlined how Oliver approached Sreerama seeking money, which took place during the course of three meetings.
At the first meeting, Oliver allegedly told Sreerama he was going through a divorce and needed money. Sreerama allegedly loaned Oliver thousands of dollars after that meeting. It was never paid back.
At a second meeting, Oliver said he was adopting a child and needed to have a particular balance in his bank accounts. Sreerama again gave Oliver thousands of dollars, according to Lewis.
The third time, Sreerama agreed to hire Oliver’s construction clean-up company to sweep a strip mall for Sreerama, Lewis said.
HCC Trustee Robert Glaser posted media reports on Facebook detailing Oliver’s guilty plea. Dozens from the Houston community, including some public officials, have weighed in.
When Glaser noted that Oliver was the chairman of the trustee’s audit committee, one person wrote: “The indicted and convicted board member is the chair of the audit committee? Talk about the fox guarding the hen house. Also, I can’t help but notice the guy only has a BA in political science and owns a construction debris removal company. How exactly does that CV qualify him to be the chair of an audit committee? Don’t you all have a CPA board member, or at least someone with some experience as an auditor?”
HCC Trustee Zeph Capo quipped on Glaser’s post about Oliver’s role as audit chair.
“Well, that’s about to change,” Capo wrote.
One series of comments dealt with Oliver continuing to serve as a trustee after his guilty plea during the time that the court records were sealed: “What kind of banana republic allows public officials who pled guilty to bribery to continue to serve in the capacity in which they committed said bribery?”
Another comment: “No members had knowledge that this investigation was ongoing? In any event it puts the board in a bad spot unless he resigns.”
Trustee Board Chair Eva Loredo said in a Friday interview with The Texas Monitor that she was “shocked” at the allegations against Oliver and his guilty plea.
Soon after, she released a statement to the public.
“While we are still gathering the details of charges made against Trustee Oliver, we will wait for court proceedings to be complete before we make any further statement. Our main interest at this time is reassuring the community, our constituents and the students of Houston Community College that our institution continues to provide quality education. This issue is not at all related to our commitment to our mission of student success and support of economic development.”
While HCC trustees will vote Thursday to censure Oliver, they have no power to remove him.
Oliver faces ten years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine.
See other reports on Oliver here:
- ABC13’s Ted Oberg Investigates, which published the initial interview with Lewis.
- The Houston Chronicle
- The Houston Press
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.