Court records show top Houston official made payments to indicted HCC trustee

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ByTed Oberg via KTRK logo
Wednesday, July 12, 2017

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The city of Houston's public works director gave a Houston Community College Trustee, indicted for extortion and bribery, payments of just over $77,000 court records allege.

Karun Sreerama gave HCC trustee Christopher Oliver the money thinking his company, ESPA Inc., wouldn't get work without it, Sreerama's attorney said.

Sreerama's company was an engineering and construction management firm.

Chris Oliver was the only trustee to solicit bribes, the attorney said.

Oliver pleaded guilty to taking $12,000 in bribes, court records show. Oliver was arrested in March, but the case was sealed until Friday.

Oliver was accused of taking nearly $90,000 in bribes to influence his service as an HCC trustee, according to court records. Some of that came in the form of Visa gift cards, the records said. Oliver pleaded guilty to only one of two counts on which he was indicted.

The count he pleaded not guilty to detailed an alleged extortion attempt by Oliver.

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.

Court documents list Sreerama as a "victim" of Oliver's alleged extortion - a characterization lawyer Lewis and the City of Houston point out as well.

The case raises questions about the HCC and there are signs the FBI had been looking at the college for some time. ABC13 reported two years ago that a former chancelor, Renee Byas, spoke with the FBI about college trustees.

The FBI is not commenting.

HCC says the Oliver case is not related to their educational work.

Sreerama was appointed the public works director by Mayor Sylvester Turner in March 2017.

A city spokesperson declined to comment.

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