Unclear yet how big a deal this is, but it is a big deal.
Houston Public Works Director Karun Sreerama made $77,143 in unlawful payments to a Houston Community College trustee who faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to bribery, according to federal court records.
The payments – made when Sreerama ran a private engineering firm – are related to an extortion and bribery case against 21-year HCC trustee Christopher Oliver, who was accused of taking payments and promising to use his position to help secure contracts with the community college system. The acting U.S. attorney has agreed to dismiss the extortion charge against Oliver in exchange for his guilty plea on the bribery indictment, court records show.
The extortion count lists an individual with the initials “K.S.” as a “victim” of “extortion under color of official right” carried out by Oliver between December 2010 and August 2013, meaning Oliver allegedly used his position as a public official to obtain an unlawful payment.
Sreerama’s attorney and two sources with knowledge of the case confirmed that Sreerama, who at the time owned the engineering firm and frequent public contractor ESPA Corp., is the person identified as “K.S.”
Houston attorney Chip Lewis, who is representing Sreerama, on Tuesday said his client was one of several targets of a “shakedown” by Oliver, and suggested broader fallout from the federal probe is to come.
Lewis said the payments in question were related to projects stemming from the college’s 2012 bond referendum.
“In doing the very diligent work the agents and prosecutors did in this case, they discovered Oliver soliciting and extorting Karun,” Lewis said. “When he was approached, he voluntarily met with the authorities and told them everything. Obviously, everything he told them checked out and was corroborated. That’s why he was a victim of Mr. Oliver’s scheme and not implicated in any criminal wrongdoing.”
Sreerama’s consent to the payments, as the Oliver indictment states, is not inconsistent with his status as a victim, Lewis said.
“Oliver made it very clear if Karun refused to make the payments that are reflected in the indictment he wouldn’t get the contracts,” the attorney said.
ESPA conducted facility studies for the college system in the years preceding and at the time of the payments, including a master plan that projected the system’s building needs through 2035.
According to Sreerama’s attorney, Chip Lewis, Trustee Oliver approached Sreerama three times asking for money. At the first meeting, Oliver allegedly told Sreerama he was going through a divorce and could not pay expenses for two households. Sreerama allegedly loaned Oliver thousands of dollars after that meeting. It was never paid back.
At a second meeting, Lewis told ABC13 Investigates, Oliver explained he was adopting a child and needed to have a particular balance in his bank accounts. Lewis says Sreerama again gave Oliver thousands of dollars.
The third time, Sreerama agreed to hire Oliver’s construction site clean-up company to sweep a strip mall for Sreerama.
According to the court documents, the payments totaled $77,143.34. Lewis did not dispute the amount and said Sreerama cooperated and his bank provided canceled checks to the FBI. Sreerama is not under investigation, Lewis said.
On Wednesday in the late morning, after this story was published, Mayor Turner put out a statement that says he is “placing city Public Works and Engineering Director Karun Sreerama on administrative leave with pay” while he reviews the matter. The Mayor also said he “was not aware of the federal case until this week”, which puts him in the same boat as the rest of us but makes one wonder what Sreerama had to say about this during his hiring process. I can believe that Sreerama didn’t know about the case against Oliver, but one would hope that he knew that these payments were questionable at best. Did the subject ever come up, or was his future boss completely blindsided? I can’t speak for Mayor Turner but it would make a difference to me.
As for Oliver, the HCC Board has called a meeting for today to discuss what happens next. Trustee Robert Glaser has been posting about this on Facebook, and he notes that the Board does not have the legal authority to boot Oliver off. Only a state district court judge can do that, though what the process for that is was not specified. The Texas elections code states that “To be eligible to be a candidate for, or elected or appointed to, a public elective office in this state, a person must […] have not been finally convicted of a felony from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities”. Oliver does not get sentenced till August 28, and I don’t know if he is “finally convicted” until he is sentenced. He can, of course, choose to resign, as the Chron urges him to do. If for whatever the reason Oliver does not do that, then the HCC Board needs to figure out how to get a judge to force him out. This should not be up for debate. Campos and the Press have more.