Oliver’s ac­tions raised eye­brows at HCC, but not in­ter­ven­tion

6 years be­fore guilty plea for bribery, trus­tees aware of trou­bling ac­tions

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Lind­say El­lis

The ques­tions Larry Ve­selka raised about Hous­ton Com­mu­nity Col­lege trus­tee Christo­pher Oliver in a 2010 re­port were trou­bling.

Af­ter a month­s­long in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mul­ti­ple HCC trus­tees, the at­tor­ney found that Oliver’s vot­ing on a con­tract con­nected to a com­pany from which he ac­cepted pay­ments prompted im­por­tant ques­tions.

“Fur­ther in­quiry could be jus­ti­fied to con­firm that there was no quid-pro-quo un­der­stand­ing or that the ar­range­ment or un­der­stand­ing did not con­sti­tute a pro­hib­ited gift to a pub­lic ser­vant.”

Oliver, a long­time trus­tee, apol­o­gized at a board meet­ing and was soon re­elected. Then-board chair Richard Schechter called the Ve­selka find­ings on Oliver “a one-time ac­tion that was in­ad­ver­tent, or at worst, a one-time mis­take” at a meet­ing.

That in­stance may have been in­ad­ver­tent or a mis­take — but it wasn’t a one­time ac­tion.

Six years af­ter that board meet­ing, Oliver pleaded guilty in May to fed­eral bribery charges, ad­mit­ting to tak­ing $12,000 in Visa gift cards and en­velopes stuffed with cash in exchange for promis­ing to use his po­si­tion to help a con­trac­tor se­cure new HCC work. He will be sen­tenced in Novem­ber.

Af­ter the charges were un­sealed, Oliver’s col­leagues cen­sured him, stripped him of his vicechair ti­tle and re­moved him from other roles.

But the vote was the first time in at least a decade that HCC trus­tees took any for­mal ac­tion against Oliver, though they were aware of al­le­ga­tions against the trus­tee since at least 2011, ac­cord­ing to a Hous­ton Chron­i­cle re­view of trus­tee min­utes, de­po­si­tions and law­suits.

Oliver, the sys­tem’s long­est-serv­ing cur­rent trus­tee, has made side deals, failed to dis­close at least one conflict of in­ter­est and po­ten­tially broke a black­out pe­riod with a con­trac­tor in in­stances dat­ing back to 2009, ac­cord­ing to these files.

He re­mains on the board, though he has not at­tended a meet­ing since his charges were un­sealed. His term ex­tends through the end of the year.

“If we knew then what we know now, we would have done some­thing dif­fer­ent,” Schechter said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “I cer­tainly would have wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. That’s not the in­for­ma­tion we had.”

Oliver and his lawyer de­clined to com­ment af­ter the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle sent a de­tailed list of ques­tions re­gard­ing these al­leged im­pro­pri­eties.

Eva Loredo, the board’s chair, tapped Oliver as vice chair this year even though she served on the board when Ve­selka’s con­cerns about Oliver were dis­cussed.

She said she wanted to work with some­one who had board ex­pe­ri­ence.

“If we had to do it again,” she said of the 6-0 vote that gave him the ti­tle, “we would not do it.”

This month, trus­tee Dave Wil­son said that he re­tained con­sul­tant Wayne Dol­cefino and at­tor­ney Keith Gross to look into HCC ad­min­is­tra­tors — and his fel­low board mem­bers.

“Some peo­ple on the board have their per­sonal in­ter­ests ahead of the col­lege’s in­ter­ests,” he said at a news con­fer­ence.

Oliver was not rep­ri­manded or cen­sured over the last decade, though over time, con­trac­tors’ al­leged pay­ments to Oliver fol­lowed fa­mil­iar pat­terns.

De­po­si­tion de­tails

Chip Lewis — who rep­re­sents Karun Sreerama, a con­trac­tor who made pay­ments to Oliver — said Oliver charged Sreerama an ex­or­bi­tant fee for clean­ing the park­ing lot of Sreerama’s busi­ness in about 2013.

That pay­ment was among three to­tal­ing $77,143 from December 2010 through Au­gust 2013, Lewis said. Oliver was sep­a­rately charged with ex­tor­tion af­ter these pay­ments, a charge that was dis­missed af­ter he pleaded guilty to bribery. Sreerama’s com­pany, ESPA Corp. Inc., was an HCC con­trac­tor at that time, and Sreerama of­ten at­tended HCC board meet­ings.

Sev­eral years prior, Oliver be­gan do­ing busi­ness with Pete Med­ford, the head of HCC con­trac­tor Fort Bend Me­chan­i­cal, shortly af­ter vot­ing to give that firm work in 2008, ac­cord­ing to Ve­selka’s re­port.

Oliver be­gan ac­cept­ing pay­ments from Fort Bend Me­chan­i­cal in 2009 in even dis­tri­bu­tions: $7,000 on four oc­ca­sions; $5,000 on five. The charges amounted to more than to $86,300 through 2010, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

At­tor­neys raised ques­tions about these pay­ments in a de­po­si­tion con­nected to a 2014 wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion law­suit from the col­lege’s former act­ing chan­cel­lor and gen­eral coun­sel.

“What kind of cleanup work is it that comes out to an even fig­ure of $7,000?” Oliver was asked.

Oliver said the pay­ment amounts were usu­ally set in ad­vance. He ac­cepted his first pay­ment in March 2009, ac­cord­ing to the Ve­selka re­port, and he later voted on a con­tract con­nected to Fort Bend Me­chan­i­cal’s work. Though these pay­ments were dis­cussed with Ve­selka’s re­port, they did not re­ceive as much at­ten­tion at the time, as ac­cu­sa­tions against other trus­tees were more se­vere.

Med­ford de­clined to com­ment on his com­pany’s busi­ness with Oliver.

At­tor­neys have raised other ques­tions against Oliver, largely brought to light af­ter a 2014 wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion law­suit filed by former act­ing chan­cel­lor Renee Byas.

In a de­po­si­tion for that law­suit, Oliver was grilled about his con­tacts with Al Kashani, who in 2014 was bid­ding on HCC projects worth at least $18 mil­lion.

Dur­ing a black­out pe­riod that for­bid con­tact be­tween con­trac­tors and trus­tees, Kashani emailed Oliver, then the board’s vice chair, urg­ing HCC to in­ter­view the three firms with the low­est bids to “truly select the ‘best value’” con­trac­tor. Oliver for­warded that email to the board’s chair, Neeta Sane.

About a week later — and two days be­fore trus­tees were to vote on the bond con­tracts — Sane and Oliver met with Byas, say­ing that ad­min­is­tra­tors needed to rec­om­mend other con­trac­tors, Byas said in a sworn de­po­si­tion.

Oliver did not deny that the meet­ing took place in a 2015 in­ter­view with the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle, though he said he did not “in any way, shape, form or fash­ion” try to use his po­si­tion to steer busi­ness. HCC would pay Byas and her at­tor­neys $850,000 to set­tle the wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion law­suit. Kashani did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

In that de­po­si­tion, Oliver also raised ques­tions when he re­quested worker’s com­pen­sa­tion two times, though he is not an em­ployee. This in­for­ma­tion had not pre­vi­ously been re­ported by the Chron­i­cle.

In 2007, he re­ceived money for one claim, which HCC said is be­cause he was trav­el­ing be­tween HCC events at the time of an ac­ci­dent and is ac­cor­dance with risk man­age­ment rules.

A sec­ond fil­ing was for about $800 but was not paid, he said in a de­po­si­tion. The ac­ci­dent took place on his way home from an event, HCC said.

An­other HCC probe

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion ini­ti­ated by trus­tee Wil­son is the sec­ond new in­ves­ti­ga­tion planned into HCC oper­a­tions af­ter Oliver’s plea. The col­lege said in July that it had re­tained former Har­ris County Com­mis­sioner Gene Locke and former As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Vi­dal Martinez to ex­am­ine ad­min­is­tra­tive prac­tices.

Chan­cel­lor Ce­sar Mal­don­ado ac­knowl­edged that com­mu­nity mem­bers are ques­tion­ing Oliver’s be­hav­ior af­ter the plea, but he said HCC’s work to ed­u­cate stu­dents should not be im­pli­cated in Oliver’s ac­tions.

The col­lege, he said, has no rea­son to be­lieve that its pro­cure­ment pro­cesses are flawed and that em­ploy­ees do not fol­low pro­ce­dures.

Still, he said, “Due dili­gence is go­ing to re­quire that we’re go­ing to look at all of that.”

Oliver was ap­pointed to an open board seat in 1995 and has served as a trus­tee ever since. His term ends Dec. 31.

When he joined the board, he was an as­so­ci­ate min­is­ter at a lo­cal Bap­tist church. Two years later, he founded Tekoa Prop­erty Man­age­ment Group, Inc., which cleans nearly com­pleted con­struc­tion sites. Re­cent fil­ings for di­vorce be­tween Oliver and his wife list that com­pany, which does not have a web­site, as his em­ployer.

Oliver has served dur­ing a tu­mul­tuous time for HCC. The col­lege has seen five full chan­cel­lors since he joined the board and has bat­tled law­suits and com­plaints from a former act­ing chan­cel­lor and sev­eral of its trus­tees.

Loredo, the board’s chair, said trus­tees saw their long­time col­league as hav­ing a man­date from vot­ers, so they did not keep him from in­ter­nal ap­pointed po­si­tions, de­spite the Ve­selka find­ings.

To Michael Po­li­akoff, the di­rec­tor of the na­tional Amer­i­can Coun­cil of Trus­tees and Alumni, Oliver’s case and trus­tees’ re­sponses to find­ings over the years show an im­por­tant guid­ing prin­ci­ple for boards.

“Col­le­gial­ity must never be al­lowed to take prece­dence over ethics and honor and hon­esty,” he said. “When there is conflict of in­ter­est or even the ap­pear­ance of conflict of in­ter­est, it calls for the board to take ac­tive steps to in­ves­ti­gate. When demon­strated, to rep­ri­mand or cen­sure.”

The col­lege’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions could cast new light on Oliver’s ten­ure on the board and po­ten­tially that of his col­leagues.

In his 2010 re­port, at­tor­ney Ve­selka didn’t mince words about three other HCC trus­tees.

He found that the three board mem­bers may have vi­o­lated crim­i­nal statutes by de­mand­ing free pro­fes­sional ser­vices from con­trac­tors, among other in­frac­tions.

Oliver, the fourth trus­tee named in the re­view, had lesser ac­cu­sa­tions lev­eled against him.

‘Waste­land’ of over­sight

Ethics ex­perts and board ob­servers say lo­cal­go­v­ern­ment bod­ies need more sound ac­count­abil­ity struc­ture.

Jay Aiyer, a Texas South­ern Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor who served as an HCC trus­tee from 2001 to 2007, said he be­lieves more ac­count­abil­ity would come from hav­ing trus­tees ap­pointed by city of­fi­cials.

Uni­ver­sity of­fi­cials are ap­pointed by the gover­nor’s of­fice, and he said com­mu­nity col­leges should do the same.

“This is a big­ger prob­lem — when you politi­cize po­si­tions you don’t need to politi­cize,” he said.

Craig McDon­ald, who leads the left-lean­ing non­profit Tex­ans for Pub­lic Jus­tice, said there is a “waste­land” of over­sight for smaller govern­ment en­ti­ties, like lo­cal boards.

“It’s all too rare,” he said, “that we catch it.”

Christo­pher Oliver re­cently pleaded guilty to bribery.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

Hous­ton Com­mu­nity Col­lege Board of Trus­tees mem­ber Dave Wil­son, right, said he has hired a con­sul­tant and at­tor­ney to look into HCC ad­min­is­tra­tors af­ter Christo­pher Oliver, left, pleaded guilty to bribery.

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