HOUSTON — A long time Houston Community College trustee was sentenced in federal court to nearly six years behind bars Monday, after detailing that he bankrolled nearly a quarter of a million dollars in bribes to steer contracts to select HCC vendors.
“I acknowledge my mistakes,” former Trustee Chris Oliver told the judge. “I’m extremely remorseful. I’m devastated. I virtually lost everything due to my poor choices.”
In court, Oliver outlined a culture of corruption that he suggested permeated the college system, one of the largest in the United States.
“It looks like a cesspool over there,” U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore said of HCC during the sentencing of Oliver.
Oliver told the judge: “The line is definitely blurred. You don’t come from wealth. You’re in an elected position. Things are thrown at you. They make things attractive.”
In all, Oliver was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison, and was ordered to pay back the $12,000 in taxpayer money the FBI used to snag him in a bribery sting.
In addition, Oliver acknowledged in court that between 2009 and 2016 he received 69 bribe payments totaling $225,259 from no fewer than four people seeking contracts with HCC.
Oliver was the longest-serving HCC trustees when he pleaded guilty last year for his role in the FBI-initiated bribery scheme.
The fallout has been enormous for both Oliver and HCC.
As for Oliver, his marriage disintegrated in the wake of the bribery scheme, and is not able to visit his child regularly.
At age 54, he will be nearly 60 when he emerges from prison.
As for HCC, he governing body that oversees the Houston Community College System is seeking “to determine if there is evidence of significant accreditation related issues.”
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in a recent letter to HCC suggesting that Oliver’s dealings raises questions “about the institution’s ongoing compliance with accreditation standards related to Board conflict of interest.”
Oliver’s comments in court also indicate there may be something of a pay-to-play culture more deep-seated in the fabric of HCC.
A lonely figure
In court Monday, Oliver was alone.
No family. No friends.
It was a contrast to the gregarious, friendly persona that Oliver exhibited before the FBI snagged him last year.
Sitting across from a Texas Monitor reporter before the sentencing, Oliver said little, his eyes welling up.
The reporter asked: “How long is the sentencing supposed to take?”
Oliver’s response: “I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”
Two HCC trustees were sitting in the courtroom for his sentencing. These two were often political opponents of Oliver.
He thanked them for coming.
Oliver was well known in his district, a rhinoceros-shaped swatch of southwest Houston.
Oliver was first elected in 1995, and served stints as the board’s chairman, and also sat on key committees.
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.
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.
Red flags flapped around Oliver
There were red flags in the past that Oliver might not be on the up and up.
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 FBI sting
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 2016.
“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.
Sreerama, who was later appointed Mayor Sylvester Turner’s public works director, had to resign in the wake of the scandal.
The college has also hired outside consultants to review its procurement history and to provide recommendations for further strengthening the college’s procedures, according to a statement provided by the college Monday.
“I am disappointed about what the former trustee has done, but actions have consequences and I believe justice has been served,” Trustee Board Chair Eva Loredo said in a statement. “Our task now is to regain the public trust. The college has already adopted new procedures and authorized an independent review to see if additional improvements to our systems can be made. Our goal is to put in place the strongest anti-corruption measures possible.”
HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado also said he was committed to keeping the college’s procurement process as clean as possible.
“We have already added several procedures that will ensure that the college’s procurement processes are among the most stringent and comprehensive of any college in the nation and our review process is ongoing,” he said.
HCC Trustee Robert Glaser, who attended the sentencing, told The Texas Monitor he was committed to making sure HCC’s culture of corruption to change to a culture of conscience and good conduct.
“This is a life-changing event,” Glaser said of Oliver’s sentence. “It will send a significant signal throughout our community and to our elected officials and people in the public eye that this type of activity is not going to be tolerated. Law enforcement will pursue folks that deviate from the public trust.”
The key, Glaser said, was to change the culture.
“Trustee Oliver made some choices and the culture there allowed him to make those choices,” he said.
Glaser said he would strive to make sure “things are followed properly.”
HCC Trustee Dave Wilson also attended the sentencing.
“This is a sad day for Chris Oliver, and his family and for HCC with this sentencing,” Wilson said.
Wilson also said there may be more fallout to come.
“It’s a tragedy when something like this happens, but the real tragedy in a bribery case there is two people, the people taking the bribe and the people giving the bribe, and there was nothing spoken to about the people giving the bribe,” he said.
Wilson suggested more enforcement when it comes to campaign contributions was needed.
“I think that’s where the real problem is, all the money that goes to candidate,” Wilson said. “The real problem is people trying to peddle influence and buying the trustees.”
Oliver said he may have in his position for “too long.”
“I probably should have called it a career,” in 2011 Oliver said.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.