BISD board member faces bribery charges

By Erin Sheridan and Gary Long, Staff writers

An indictment handed down by a federal grand jury charging BISD vice president Sylvia Atkinson with accepting bribes detailed at least one incident in which she is accused of soliciting thousands of dollars from an undercover FBI agent posing as an employee of a Brownsville-based film production company.

The document, which was unsealed just prior to Atkinson’s arrest outside of a scheduled Brownsville Independent School District meeting on Tuesday night, charged Atkinson with eight counts including conspiracy to defraud the United States, bribery concerning a program receiving federal funds, and five counts of violation of the Travel Act – State Bribery law.

According to the document, Atkinson used her position as a school board official and an elected BISD Trustee to obtain money from private companies and private individuals in exchange for assistance in obtaining contracts with the district.

These included potential school district purchases of computer tablets, medical teleconferencing services, and tutorial services, according to the document.

Atkinson made her initial appearance in federal court in Brownsville on Wednesday morning. She was accompanied by two lawyers, Noe Garza and Dale Robertson

During her arraignment, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald G. Morgan laid out the conditions Atkinson must meet in order to be released on a $50,000 bond agreement.

The BISD Trustee was required to submit a $5,000 cash deposit with the court, maintain and seek employment, and surrender her passport. Additionally, Morgan ordered Atkinson to refrain from contact with any alleged co-conspirators or victims.

Atkinson’s ability to travel was restricted to the Southern District of Texas, and Morgan specified that she could not go to Mexico, adding, “You’ve got to understand something. You’re in trouble.”

The judge finished by informing Atkinson that she would face severe consequences if she does not appear back in court, for which motion hearings are scheduled throughout December.

Atkinson entered a plea of not guilty through her attorneys. Jury selection in the case is scheduled for Jan. 21, 2020. Court documents indicated that she posted bond after she was remanded to the custody of a U.S. Marshal.

Approached by reporters outside of the courthouse, Garza briefly stated that both attorneys were “ready to defend” Atkinson.

“She’s innocent of all charges. Up to this point, I have to save my comments; the rules don’t allow me to make any comment about this,” he said.

Asked about Morgan’s warning, Garza responded, “That is just an accusation. My client is innocent and that comment the judge made is simply that, a comment.”

BISD said that they were unable to make a statement at this time, as they did not have enough information.

According to prosecutors, a December 2018 incident referred to by government attorneys in the indictment as “The Movie Project” involved Atkinson both soliciting and accepting a $10,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as an employee of Pink Ape Media, an advertising and film production company based in Brownsville.

In 2012, Pink Ape Media submitted a proposal to the school board for advertising on school buses. The company was granted a contract in which they offered BISD 60 percent of the profits, which were projected to generate $735,000.

The company was also granted a contract in 2014 to design Cameron County’s website.

A narrative of events included in the indictment stated that Atkinson met with the “employee” and a cooperating individual, who is a resident of Brownsville, on Dec. 18, 2018 to discuss the possibility of filming on BISD properties.

She is said to have told the undercover agent, “I’ll get a couple of people to give me some quotes, because…You know it is not going to be…It is not going to be for free…And the whole reason I mentioned about having you be the front…It is because he can get you paid.”

The following day, Atkinson met with both the undercover agent and the cooperating individual at the cooperating individual’s office, prosecutors say. The three discussed placing the movie project on the school board’s January agenda, according to the indictment.

The indictment stated that the undercover agent asked Atkinson, “What do you think this whole thing will cost myself and my partners?” Atkinson is quoted as responding, “I can tell you it’s probably gonna be, I would say, probably about ten.”

She allegedly added, “I think that’s pretty low…’cause we’re looking at the long picture…of us having a good relationship.”

According to the narrative of events, the undercover agent made an initial payment of $4,000 to Atkinson in exchange for her placing the film project proposal on the agenda for a future meeting.

Additionally, Atkinson coached the cooperating individual on how to present the project to the school board, prosecutors say. The undercover agent paid Atkinson the remaining $6,000 after the film project was approved by the school board during a Feb. 12, 2019 meeting, according to prosecutors.

A letter signed by Pink Ape Media’s CEO Rodrigo Moreno addressed to BISD Interim Superintendent of Schools Sylvia R. Hatton was included as part of the school board’s agenda packet for a meeting on Feb. 12.

A copy of the agenda for the Feb. 12 meeting lists Pink Ape Media’s proposal on the second page.

In the indictment, prosecutors alleged that Atkinson collected and kept all or part of the money for herself.

Atkinson is alleged to have said that the money she solicited and received were campaign contributions, which the indictment specified “in reality were bribes”, as Atkinson did not report the money as campaign contributions.

The Trustee was also accused of distributing funds to finance the election campaigns of other local political candidates with intent to enhance her power in local politics, to enhance her influence on the Board of Trustees, and her ability to extract the alleged bribes.

Atkinson was elected to BISD’s Board of Trustees on Nov. 4, 2016. She was appointed vice president in 2018, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas.

During school board meetings, Atkinson was known to present herself as somewhat of a “watchdog” with the intent to crack down on corruption among trustees.

According to the indictment, the Board of Trustees consisted of seven board members and a superintendent. It was the main governing body of the school district and was responsible for an annual budget of $520 million, approximately $100 million of which was federally funded.

The document specified that Atkinson previously served as superintendent of Socorro, Santa Rosa, and Los Fresnos school districts, as well as assistant superintendent of BISD and Rio Hondo Independent School District (RHISD).

Currently, Atkinson serves as the executive director of High School Programs and Community Outreach at Texas Southmost College.

Asked for comment on Atkinson’s Tuesday arrest and indictment, Lynda Lopez, executive director of Advancement and Communication at TSC, told The Brownsville Herald that, “TSC is unable to comment on personnel issues.”

“Legal is currently reviewing our options,” she added.

Nubia Reyna contributed translations to this report.