Atkinson trial nears final arguments

Sylvia Atkinson

Government prosecutors introduced evidence Tuesday linking former Brownsville ISD board vice-president Sylvia Atkinson to a behind-the-scenes deal to skirt prohibitions against her doing business with BISD.

Through a group called Sunshine Solutions, Atkinson in April 2018 sought to promote an educational software company called iTutor, telling the BISD Curriculum and Instruction department that Adela Garza, the Texas Southmost College board president, was the local representative.

Atkinson is on trial in U.S. District Court in Brownsville on eight counts of bribery charged in a December 2019 grand jury indictment.

U.S. Attorney Robert S. Johnson introduced an audio recording of a call between Atkinson and Garza in which they agree that Garza would say she represented iTutor for purposes of the presentation, and then split Atkinson’s commission. Atkinson at the time was a consultant for iTutor at about a dozen upstate school districts, but could not represent the company to BISD because of district ethical guidelines.

He also introduced FBI photos of Garza and Atkinson arriving at the BISD administration building for the presentation.

Berta Peña, a retired BISD assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, testified it was the only time in her 41-year educational career that a district trustee had asked her to meet with a potential vendor about a product.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. allowed the evidence only for jurors to make a judgment whether Atkinson has been telling the truth and not as evidence of actual wrongdoing.

The main charges against Atkinson allege that an undercover FBI agent paid her $4,000 to use her position as board vice president to get an item placed on the Feb. 12, 2019 board agenda authorizing a feasibility study about filming the movie using BISD facilities, and $6,000 when the board approved the feasibility study.

A federal grand jury indicted Atkinson on eight counts of bribery stemming from an FBI investigation into the movie project, bid-rigging allegations on a $25,000 tablet computer pilot project in the Rio Hondo school district when she worked there, and alleged campaign contribution violations in 2014 in BISD.

The prosecution and Atkinson’s defense rested their cases late Tuesday, clearing the way for closing arguments today.

Rodriguez said each side will have 25 minutes to present final arguments. Government attorneys will then have 12 minutes to present rebuttal arguments to the defense case, after which the jury will decide Atkinson’s fate.

glong@brownsvilleherald.com