Houston Community College Trustee Chris Oliver has been indicted and pleaded guilty to bribery in a high-profile public corruption case which is now being linked to a high-ranking Houston city official.
Documents have come to light showing that Houston Public Works Director Karun Sreerama paid $77,143 to the indicted Oliver. At the time, Sreerama was the owner of ESPA Corporation, an engineering firm which has received contracts from HCC. Sreerama was appointed to his position as head of Public Works in March by Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Oliver was indicted by a grand jury on March 9, 2017 on counts of bribery and extortion. He subsequently pleaded guilty to the bribery charge. Records show that Oliver took over $12,000 in cash payments and Visa gift cards “intending to be influenced and rewarded for actions [he] took”, according to the indictment.
The extortion charge states that Oliver used his position to gain $77,143 from a “victim,” simply referred to as K.S., now identified as Sreerama. Even though he is called a victim, the indictment says Sreerama willingly paid the money to Oliver.
In order to commit extortion, the law does not require an official to necessarily threaten or coerce someone into giving them money. “It can be said that the coercive element is provided by the public office itself,” according to the Office of U.S. Attorneys.
In Evans v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in order to convict an official of extortion under the Hobbs Act, “the Government need only show that a public official has obtained a payment to which he was not entitled, knowing that the payment was made in return for official acts.”
While Oliver was indicted on both counts, the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case agreed to drop the extortion charge in exchange for Oliver pleading guilty to the bribery charge.
Sreerama is not currently charged with any wrongdoing. His attorney has claimed that Sreerama paid Oliver the money because Oliver made it clear to him that if he didn’t give him the bribe, his engineering firm would not get contracts on construction projects funded by a 2012 HCC bond.
Former mayoral candidate Bill King, however, does not think Sreerama is a victim, and took to social media to weigh in on the case:
“In a bribery case there are two criminals, the person paying the bribe and the person receiving the bribe. The only victims are the taxpayers.”
Following the revelation, Sreerama was placed on leave. Oliver is scheduled to be sentenced in August and faces up to 10 years in prison.