HCC trustee bribe promise: $2,500 a month makes vendor a millionaire

HCC Trustee Chris Oliver

HOUSTON — Houston Community College Trustee Chris Oliver, whose guilty plea to a bribery scheme recently became public, said that for a few thousand dollars cash he could make a vendor “a millionaire” by securing lucrative college contracts for him, court documents obtained by The Texas Monitor show.

The records also show that the vendor, local business icon Karun Sreerama — who was recently appointed to the powerful post of Houston public works director — met monthly with Oliver at a coffee shop to slip the trustee envelopes filled with cash.

Sreerama, identified in federal court documents by his initials “KS,” had been also described as a “victim” in previous court records made public.

The details behind Oliver trading his influence to obtain thousands of dollars in cash is detailed in a federal arraignment document dated May 15, 2017.

See that full document here.

The bribery scheme began on May 29th, 2015, records show, when Oliver and Sreerama met at a restaurant. Oliver repeatedly asked Sreerama if he was working on behalf of law enforcement. The two also discussed how Oliver had helped Sreerama “secure business with HCC in the past, and how he could do so again in future endeavors.”

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 2nd, 2015. Sreerama gave 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,” according to the document.

The records also show:

  • One time after getting his cash-filled envelope, Oliver provided Sreerama with a list of various contracts at HCC. Oliver implied that if asked, he would deny all knowledge of how Sreerama got the list.
  • Another time over coffee, Oliver received $2,000 in cash and a $500 Visa gift card. The trustee discussed voting on contracts that Sreerama was competing for. “Unless you say something, I won’t be voting for it,” Oliver said. “If I vote, it is going to stick.”
  • 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.” Oliver also walked away with $1,000 cash in an envelope, and another $500 Visa gift card.

Sreerama continued to meet with Oliver and hand over money, the document shows.

In April and 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.”

By May 13, 2016, 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 anymore money without some results, the document shows.

At that point, “Oliver ended the relationship,” according to the document.

In all, Sreerama made $77,000 in unlawful payments to Oliver before the feds tapped Sreerama to aid in stinging the HCC trustees, according to federal official records and interviews. The bribes that Oliver pleaded guilty to accepting in 2015 and 2016 amounted to $12,000.

There has been fallout already from Oliver’s guilty plea.

Houston Community College trustees announcing they will voted to censure Oliver and stripped him from his trustee chairmanships and his role as the board’s vice-chairman.

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.

And Sreerama, whose appointment to lead the city’s public works department was announced mid-March, has been placed on paid leave by Mayor Sylvester Turner. Turner said Sreerama did not tell him about the relationship with Oliver.

Sreerama is not back at work. The mayor said this week he is continuing to review the matter.

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.

He also had done work previously for HCC.

Oliver’s sentencing has been moved. It had been scheduled for Aug. 28, but is now scheduled for Nov. 13.

See other Texas Monitor reporting on the bribery scheme here:

HCC hires attorneys to probe vendor hires, finances after bribery scandal

HCC trustees vote to censure Chris Oliver after bribery scandal

HCC trustee’s bribery scheme linked to Houston City Hall

HCC Trustee pleads guilty in $90,000 bribery scheme

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

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.


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