Trustees | Trusteeship

Red flags during trustee’s time on HCC board didn’t bring intervention

6 years before guilty plea for bribery, trustees aware of troubling actions
HOUSTON CHRONICLE   |  August 23, 2017 by Lindsay Ellis

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

After a months-long 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 re-elected. 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 one-time 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 vice-chair 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 local-government 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.”


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