Attorney: Atkinson, still communicating with BISD board

Attorneys for BISD Trustee Sylvia Atkinson and the Cameron County District Attorney’s office appeared in court on Monday afternoon for a Zoom hearing in the ongoing petition to remove Atkinson from the school board.

District Attorney Luis V. Saenz filed the petition against Atkinson in early March when other Brownsville residents failed to do so. The trustee and former Texas Southmost College employee faces eight federal counts of conspiracy, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, and violation of the Travel Act-State Law Bribery.

An indictment filed in December accused Atkinson of allegedly soliciting and accepting a $10,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for placing a local film company’s project proposal on the school board agenda.

She faces up to 45 years in prison and a fine that could total $2 million, in addition to any funds collected through the alleged conspiracy subject to forfeiture.

During Monday’s hearing, attorney Noe Garza informed visiting senior judge Federico Hinojosa, that trial in the federal case is set for August 10. Hinojosa reset the removal case for Aug. 14.

Monday’s proceeding was held in relation to several motions filed since March, including a motion to compel written discovery for which the state said it had yet to receive a response from Atkinson and BISD.

While questioning BISD Board Secretary Patricia Perez, Garza mentioned communications between Atkinson and other board members, as well as Superintendent René Gutierrez, in the months since her arrest.

The attorney referenced emails “dating back to January, but one as recent as June 23, 2020” — an email from Atkinson to Gutierrez regarding budget flexibility options, according to Garza.

“I think Ms. Perez, the point here is that Dr. Atkinson has communicated since Nov. 20, 2019 through the president with board members and the superintendent regarding matters pertaining to the school,” said Garza.

Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Edward Sandoval took the opportunity to address the motion to compel written discovery filed on March 18, to which the state has allegedly received no response, filing two letters after the initial request calling on Atkinson to produce the documents, court records showed.

Under an alteration to the Texas Public Information Act, current or former officers or employees of a government entity have a duty to back up all correspondence, whether on a personal or school district device related to school business, to fill such requests, the attorney argued.

“Failure to do that may expose someone to criminal culpability,” said Sandoval. Hinojosa granted BISD counsel Baltazar Salazar the opportunity to respond, but he wasn’t able to do so due to technical difficulties.

“Ms. Perez has described that Dr. Atkinson has continued to send emails to members of the school board,” said Sandoval. Later, he added, “We actually requested that from the Brownsville school district and they have not provided it to us. Letters were sent on March 6 to the public information officer and cc’d to Mr. Salazar.”

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com