One year and $400,000 later, HCC procurement probe findings may be coming soon

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It’s been nearly a year, it’s cost almost $400,000, and yet a promised report on the college’s potential procurement problems in the wake of former HCC Trustee Chris Oliver’s guilty plea in a bribery scheme has not been made public.

Trustees have been told the final report will be released June 21.

Even after the time and the cost, Trustee John Hansen, who chairs the board’s audit committee, said it’s unclear if the report will have any strong findings.

“Supposedly we’re going to get the detail of what it is, if anything, they think they’ve found,” Hansen said. “Based on the preliminary comments that we got, I’m not really overly optimistic that it’s going to be telling us a whole lot.”

Oliver pleaded guilty to bribery last year after admitting to prosecutors he pocketed a quarter of a million dollars in bribes to steer contracts to select HCC vendors. He was sentenced in January to nearly six years in prison. Oliver’s plea became public on July 7, 2017.

The college’s internal investigation began July 18, 2017, when HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado hired former Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke, with Andrews & Kurth, and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Vidal Martinez, with Martinez Partners, as special counsel to probe the college’s procurement process and other internal affairs.

But there was a stumble.

Less than three months after HCC brought on the duo, they were no longer on the job. Locke claimed a conflict of interest when contacted at the time by The Texas Monitor.  Martinez did not return a call seeking comment when he was called at the time. He was let go by the trustees, some citing the costs that were piling up.

Their unfinished investigation cost taxpayers more than $207,000, invoices show.

On Oct. 31, 2017, Maldonado hired attorney Arturo Michel, with Thompson & Horton, to complete the probe that Locke and Martinez left undone. Michel is the former attorney for the city of Houston and former HCC board counsel. Soon after, Baker & McKenzie’s Lawrence Finder, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, was brought on by the college.

So far, between the two, taxpayers have been billed nearly $176,000 to complete the probe, records show.

The total comes to $383,600 so far.

These invoices were obtained through the state’s open records act.

The Oliver scandal shook the college — and the city.

The bribery scheme in which federal investigators were tracking Oliver began on May 29, 2015, when Oliver and local businessman and prolific campaign donor Karun Sreerama — and at the time an FBI informant — 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, Sreerama said he would pay Oliver approximately $2,500 per month “based on what he had paid him in the past,” according to court records.

Their next meeting took place days later where 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.”

In early 2017, Sreerama had been appointed the head of Houston’s director of the city Public Works and Engineering Department.

Soon after the news broke about Oliver’s guilty plea, he was forced to step down.

An HCC spokeswoman declined to comment about the potential that the college’s internal investigation would be released soon.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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