The Houston Community College Board of Trustees unanimously voted to publicly censure disgraced Vice Chairman Chris Oliver after he pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in May.
Board Chairwoman Eva Loredo, who called Oliver's actions "reprehensible," said this was the highest form of discipline within the board's legal authority; despite the fact that a convicted felon is currently contributing to decisions for college students' education, the board legally can't remove him from office since he's an elected official.
Oliver has lost his position as the vice chairman, he has been removed from his position on all board committees, he can't be reimbursed for any college-related travel, and he's ineligible for any board officer positions.
"I wish we had greater legal authority, because if I did, he wouldn't be sitting on this board," said Board Trustee Dr. Adriana Tamez.
Oliver was charged in federal court with bribery and extortion in March in a scandal involving Houston Public Works and Engineering Director Karun Sreerama. He pleaded guilty to accepting more than $12,000 in cash and Visa gift cards in exchange for "promising to use his position to help that person secure contracts with HCC," U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez said in a release.
As part of his plea agreement on the bribery case, federal prosecutors dropped the extortion charge against him, which involved Sreerama. Sreerama allegedly coughed up more than $77,000 in illegal payments to Oliver between 2010 and 2013, but is identified as the "victim" of extortion simply because Oliver was in a position of power as a public official, and Sreerama was working for his company, ESPA, at the time of the transactions.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has placed Sreerama on administrative leave while he checks out the federal indictment, which only became unsealed last Friday.
Chip Lewis, Sreerama's attorney, told the Houston Press Wednesday that Sreerama's payments to Oliver came on three occasions for both personal and business reasons. While Oliver was apparently having marital problems while also trying to adopt a child, he asked Sreerama to loan him thousands of dollars, Lewis said. On the last occasion, Oliver asked Sreerama to hire Oliver's property-cleanup business to clear a strip mall lot that Sreerama owned. And because all of this took place around the time that HCC was awarding contracts related to the 2012 bond referendum projects, Lewis said, "Karun's fear was if he didn't loan the money [Oliver] was asking for, it would be to his detriment for future contracts."
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Oliver's last solicitation from Sreerama has an M.O. pretty similar to the incident that Board Trustee Dave Wilson called out during the board's public meeting yesterday: the Fort Bend Mechanical scandal. The company had also hired Oliver's property clean-up crew for several projects — paying Oliver's company nearly $100,000 between 2008 and 2010 — and in exchange, Fort Bend Mechanical just so happened to get booted to one of HCC's major contractors.
"I sincerely apologize to the public for letting this happen while we were here," Wilson said. "But Trustee Oliver's actions were no surprise. They've been well-documented for a long time, and this board decided to do nothing about it. This board should have taken action before. In the city of Houston, it's unfortunate that this whole pay-to-play culture is here, and we need to, as a board, pull ourselves from the bootstraps and change that culture."
Board Trustee John Hansen took a more glass-half-full approach, saying, "I think it's fair to point out that as abhorrent as this episode is, it really has little direct effect on the faculty and the students of the college. I think in the spirit of what many of my fellow trustees have said, the business of the college went on through all of this and was not much affected."
His comments only raise the question: How exactly was that business conducted?