Judge recuses himself from Atkinson case

BROWNSVILLE — One day after U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera Jr. was assigned to hear the case of BISD Vice President Sylvia P. Atkinson, the federal judge recused himself from the case, although he gave no reason.

Atkinson is charged with eight felony counts alleging soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for Brownsville Independent School District contracts.

In addition to her position on the BISD Board of Trustees, Atkinson serves as the executive director of High School Programs and Community Outreach at Texas Southmost College. Atkinson previously served as superintendent of Socorro, Santa Rosa and Los Fresnos school districts, and assistant superintendent of BISD and Rio Hondo Independent School District.

Atkinson’s case was transferred to U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. following Olvera’s official recusal last Thursday.

The transfer resulted in a reset scheduling order for motion hearings and trial dates. Atkinson entered a plea of not guilty through her two attorneys during an arraignment hearing on Wednesday, opting to bring the case to trial.

Rodriguez set Atkinson’s final pretrial conference for Feb. 4, 2020, with jury selection for the anticipated two-week long trial on Feb. 10.

At the end of the order, the judge specified that any plea bargain or plea agreement that may be worked out between government prosecutors and Atkinson’s attorneys must be made known to the court three days before the final pretrial conference.

Should attorneys fail to meet this requirement, the case will go to trial and the court will refuse to honor any plea agreement, according to the order signed by Rodriguez.

The indictment handed down by a federal grand jury prior to Atkinson’s arrest on Tuesday evening accused the trustee of 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.

Atkinson was accused of accepting payments of $4,000 and $6,000 from the undercover agent in order to place the company’s film production proposal on the school board’s Feb. 12 meeting agenda for potential approval.

A copy of the meeting’s agenda featuring the proposal included a letter signed by the company’s Chief Creative Officer Rodrigo Moreno, addressed to BISD Interim Superintendent Dr. Sylvia R. Hatton.

Government prosecutors outlined how Atkinson allegedly coached a “cooperating individual” on language to use in the proposal. The letter, accompanied by two emails from Moreno to Hutton, requests permission to place the film production plan on the meeting’s agenda in order to begin coordinating a production plan.

“While it is too soon to say whether or not it would be feasible for us to produce this pilot to scale, we do intend to make sure that if this pilot does go into full production that we identify a portion of the proceeds go directly to your Foundation or other special programs that you designate,” Moreno wrote.

The company was previously granted a contract to place ads on BISD school buses.

Both the letter and a transcript of the Feb. 12 meeting obtained by The Brownsville Herald indicated that the company went through a formal process involving contracts to shoot the 2015 film “Endgame” on BISD property.

According to the transcript, Atkinson remarked, “we were already the beneficiary of having national exposure with The End Game,” before detailing how the district was involved in the film’s production process.

“I think it’s pretty much the sentiment of the board, we want to be able to promote the district as much as possible and if there is an opportunity to do so and it’s a feel good story and you know, it’s about promoting the district and our community, I’m all for it, sign them up, give me 10 film makers, thank you,” she said.

The board voted unanimously to approve the pre-production process.

Atkinson was released on bond following her arraignment and is scheduled to appear in court for a motion hearing on Jan. 29 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald G. Morgan.

The scheduling order filed on Thursday made note that Atkinson’s failure to appear at future hearings may result in additional charges being brought against her.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com