Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Karun Sreerama

Public Works Director Sreerama is out

From the inbox, a Friday afternoon special:

Statement by Mayor Sylvester Turner on city Public Works and Engineering director

“Karun Sreerama has accomplished much in Houston as a businessman and involved citizen. I am sure he will continue to be an asset to our community. However he and I have agreed that it would be best for the city for him to step down as director of the city Public Works and Engineering Department.

“Carol Haddock will continue to serve as acting director until I choose a new director.”

See here and here for the background. This followed in the wake of a Chron story that gave a lot more detail.

According to a transcript released Thursday in the case against Oliver, Sreerama allegedly paid the HCC trustee about $12,000 in cash and Visa gift cards between June 2015 and February 2016 in exchange for Oliver’s influence over HCC contracts.

Oliver pleaded guilty to bribery in connection with accepting the more recent payments totaling $12,000, court records show, and in exchange the acting U.S. attorney agreed to dismiss the separate extortion charge tied to Sreerama’s earlier payments totaling $77,143.

Sreerama’s attorney Chip Lewis said federal authorities directed Sreerama to pay Oliver the $12,000 in 2015 and 2016 after confronting Sreerama about his earlier, independent payments to the trustee.

“What he was doing was created, directed and funded by the FBI,” Lewis said. “Karun was a cooperating witness as a result of being a victim of Oliver’s scheme.”

[…]

Sreerama, identified as “K.S.” in Oliver’s indictment and re-arraignment transcript, wrote three checks to Oliver between late 2010 and mid-2013 in response to the trustee’s solicitations, Lewis said.

As Lewis described the payments, the first two were made because Oliver claimed he was going through a costly divorce, and then claimed he needed funds to complete the process of adopting a child. Both payments were presented as loans and were not repaid. The third payment took the form of an exorbitant fee Oliver charged after his company cleaned the parking lot at Sreerama’s business.

“By the time we get to the third payment and he hadn’t been repaid the loans, Karun became worried that saying, ‘No, no I’ve got somebody who already does the cleaning, etc.’ could adversely affect his position down the road,” Lewis said.

Federal authorities confronted Sreerama in March 2015, a year and a half after he made that final payment, and asked for his cooperation in their investigation, Lewis said.

Two months later – at the FBI’s behest, Lewis said – Sreerama began a series of meetings with Oliver that lasted through May 2016.

The FBI declined to comment to the Chron, so we just have attorney Lewis’ word for all of this, which is also the reason why Sreerama was apparently unable to tell the Mayor about it. I’d still like to hear Sreerama say in his own words why he did what he did, but it seems unlikely that will ever happen. I do hope there are no more shoes to drop. Whatever the case, this was the right outcome.

HCC Board censures Chris Oliver

It’s the most they can do.

Chris Oliver

The Houston Community College system’s board of trustees decided Thursday to reprimand a 21-year veteran of the elected board who has pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge.

The board’s eight other members decried Christopher W. Oliver’s acceptance of unlawful payments as “reprehensible.” They voted unanimously to formally censure Oliver, strip him of his vice chair role, freeze his spending account and remove him from all committees, including the audit committee he had chaired.

[…]

Trustee Robert Glaser said the board acted as quickly as possible.

“We didn’t leave anything on the table,” he added.

“It affects us all,” said trustee Adriana Tamez. “This totally takes away from the great things that are going on. … There’s no excuse.”

[…]

The board’s bylaws lay out the group’s options in ethics situations: “If the Board finds a violation of this Ethics Code, it can reprimand or censure the Board member, the only sanctions available under Texas law.”

In general, elected officials cannot be removed by their colleagues. The underlying principle is that voters alone get to choose their representatives.

The HCC board’s legal counsel said Oliver still holds his position.

“The Board does not have the authority to remove a Board member from elected office,” the Bracewell law firm said in a statement emailed by HCC spokesman Todd Duplantis. “That process is governed by Texas law.”

The board’s counsel, Bracewell partner Jarvis Hollingsworth, told the Chronicle in 2010 that censure is the harshest punishment available to the board. Elected trustees only can be removed by state district judges, he said.

See here and here for the background. Given that the Board does not have the authority to remove Oliver from office, I agree that they did all they could. Given that Oliver has not yet resigned, I would still like to know what the process is for getting a district court judge to remove him. Is that something the Board can initiate? According to Robert Glaser, the answer to that is No:

[Oliver] is scheduled for sentencing August 28. The act of sentencing will remove him from office. Folks have from July 22 to August 21 to ‘throw their name in the hat’ to run for his seat this November. We may let the sentencing action play out- as that is going to happen in (6) weeks, anyway. It may take that long for anyone to get an action thru state court to get his removal completed. We, as a board, cannot initiate the action. An individual living in Harris County would need to initiate the action. This is from information provided to us by our legal counsel.

Good to know. As for Karun Sreerama, I’m not ready to render a judgment on him just yet. I haven’t called for Ken Paxton to resign as AG because as malignant as I think he is, he is still innocent until proven guilty. Sreerama has not been formally accused of any wrongdoing, nor does it appear he was let off the hook for anything in return for cooperation in the Oliver investigation. That doesn’t mean his behavior isn’t problematic or worthy of consequences, just that we have a lot less information right now about what he actually did and why he did it. Maybe he felt he was being coerced, or maybe he was acting out of a (possibly misguided) sense of compassion, I don’t know. If you want to make like Herodias and call for Sreerama’s head on a platter, you do you. I’d like to hear what he has to say for himself first. The Press has more.

Houston Public Works director caught up in HCC bribery case

Unclear yet how big a deal this is, but it is a big deal.

Chris Oliver

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.

See here for the background. Ted Oberg at KTRK adds a few more details.

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.