DA wants BISD trustee off school board

Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz has filed a petition to remove BISD Board Vice President Sylvia Atkinson from her elected position in lieu of any such petitions filed by citizens asking for her removal.

The petition will be adjudicated in the 107th state District Court and was set to be overseen by District Judge Benjamin Euresti, Jr., who according to Saenz recused himself. The 5th Presiding Judge of the 5th Administrative Region Senior has assigned Judge J. Manuel Bañales to take over the case, the DA’s office confirmed on Friday.

According to Saenz, the next procedural step is for the court to authorize service of citation. In addition to requesting Atkinson’s removal, the petition also asks the court for a suspension pending her potential removal from the position. “I’m not speaking for the court, but procedurally, the court could summarily suspend her based on what the court sees in the document,” he said.

“Or, the court would have to say, ‘I’m going to have to have more evidence on what you all were alleging.”

Atkinson was arrested in December after a federal grand jury handed down an eight-count indictment charging her with one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, and six counts of travel act-state law bribery.

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

A December 2018 incident referred to by government attorneys in the indictment as “The Movie Project” involved Atkinson allegedly 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.

The case is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez, Jr. Atkinson has pleaded not guilty to the charges. She held additional positions as Assistant Superintendent for Rio Hondo ISD and Executive Director of High School Programs and Community Outreach at Texas Southmost College.

Lynda Lopez, executive director of Advancement & Communications at TSC, confirmed via email on Friday that Atkinson was no longer an employee of the college.

Saenz said on Friday that his office waited on citizens to come forward to file a petition for removal, as was done in response to the DWI arrests of BISD Trustee Erasmo Castro and San Benito School Board President Michael Vargas last year.

When that didn’t happen, the office decided to finally file one on Wednesday following the primary elections. Saenz, who ran uncontested, said he nonetheless didn’t want the filing of the petition to appear to be politically motivated and so waited until this week to do so.

“When we do something like this, we staff it among different assistant district attorneys and make sure everything is in order. We filed it by Wednesday at about 3:30 in the afternoon,” he said.

The petition seeks Atkinson’s removal for official misconduct on three different grounds. The first, according to the DA, is the overt acts listed in the federal indictment. The second is the alleged bribery, also listed in the indictment, Saenz explained.

“The third one is a failure to disclose a gift to a public servant. In other words, when you have a gift, you have a duty to disclose it, and she did not do that. And there’s also the part where you’re supposed to file a conflict of interest statement, and she failed to file that also.”

Saenz said that while he understands Atkinson has yet to have her day in court, the seriousness of the charges in combination with the fact that no citizens moved to file a removal petition justified Wednesday’s decision.

“It’s disappointing, and the DA’s office felt that something had to be done. To have six members on the board is not in the best interests of the citizens. Theoretically, you can have a very important topic on the agenda, and theoretically, the board could be split 3-3 and no action could be taken because it’s stymied,” said Saenz.

“That is not in the best interest of the taxpayers, the staff, the administration, and, most importantly, the kids. Something has to be done. We have to move on.”