Houston’s PWE Director Resigns Amidst Bribery Allegations

ABOVE: Karun Sreerama

In the article published in the Forward Times last month entitled “Scandalous: Public Officials Tangled in a Bribery, Prostitution, Sex and Drugs,” the Forward Times promised to “stay close to this issue, and will definitely report on whoever may be tied to any more corruption stories or scandals in the Greater Houston area as they materialize.”

We now have the first update of the fallout surrounding the case of Houston Community College (HCC) trustee Chris Oliver, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in May and is facing a maximum of 10 years in prison for the crime.

Veteran Houston engineer Karun Sreerama, who took the reigns as the City of Houston’s Public Works director in March, resigned this past Friday, July 28, after allegations surfaced that he was primarily involved in a major bribery scheme involving HCC Trustee Oliver.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who initially placed Sreerama on administrative leave with pay while he promised to review the matter, released a statement after more details came out about the situation.

“Karun Sreerama has accomplished much in Houston as a businessman and involved citizen,” said Mayor Turner. “I am sure he will continue to be an asset to our community. However he and I have agreed that it would be best for the city for him to step down as director of the city Public Works and Engineering Department.”

Turner stated that Carol Haddock will continue to serve as acting director until he chooses a new director. In the meantime, more questions are swirling as to who did what, when, how and why?

Originally charged with two counts of bribery for allegedly accepting close to $90,000 in bribes as a means to influence his decision-making on contracts and services involving HCC, Oliver pleaded guilty to one of the bribery charges to which the federal government alleged that he accepted bribes totaling $12,000 in the form of Visa gift cards, according to court records.

At a press conference this past Friday that was held to give his side of the story, Sreerama admitted to paying Oliver $12,000 in bribes in 2015, but states that he was working under the direction and instruction of the FBI when it occurred.

“I gave the FBI my word that I would remain silent and I would keep this confidential, and that’s exactly what I did,” said Sreerama at the press conference. “Telling anybody about this case or how I was involved even after the first reports came would have violated my oath to remain silent, but now, I am ready to set the record straight.”

And keep quiet, he did.

Sreerama was approached by the FBI, although it is unclear why the FBI approached him in the first place, and began meeting with Oliver beginning in May 2015. Sreerama explained at the press conference that the FBI gave him all the money and Visa gift cards to continue this elaborate bribery scandal setup sting operation. Every time he would meet with Oliver to give him the money or the Visa gift cards, the feds were watching.

They met at places such as restaurants and coffee shops, with exchange after exchange taking place where Sreerama would give Oliver cash envelopes and Visa gift cards. During their meetings, the two would discuss HCC business contracts and opportunities to make Sreerama even wealthier off the contracts he voted on at the community college.

Sreerama said that he was under strict instructions by the FBI to comply and not say a word, because it could have hurt the investigation before Oliver’s plea deal was announced.

“I assisted the FBI in catching a criminal,” said Sreerama. “I helped catch a crooked official and bring him to jail, and for that, I am paying the price for doing a good deed. I am not a bad person, I did not do anything wrong. I was working with law enforcement officials and that is the truth.”

The FBI has not filed any charges against Sreerama in the case, but Oliver continues to remain out on bond until his scheduled sentencing on August 28.

At the HCC Board of Trustees meeting last month, the trustees voted unanimously to censure Oliver after learning of his guilty plea regarding the federal bribery charges. Removing Oliver, or anyone from their role as an HCC trustee, is not that simple. Only a state district judge has the power to remove an HCC trustee from the board, but that all changes once a trustee is sentenced.

Assuming Oliver is formally sentenced on August 28, he will then be a convicted felon and cannot legally hold the post any longer.

Questions are still swirling about who else may be next on the gauntlet for the federal government; especially when you have many in the community who believe that Oliver may have been serving as an informant for the FBI during the time he has been allowed to continue serving in his role as an HCC trustee.

In the meantime, HCC has hired former Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Gene Locke and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Vidal Martinez to take a look at HCC’s procurement processes and safeguards to correct the issues that led to Oliver’s guilty plea.

Who’s next?

The Forward Times will be watching and will keep you informed once we find out more.