Public access denied in Atkinson motion hearing

A motion hearing in the federal bribery case against BISD Trustee Dr. Sylvia Atkinson moved forward without public access on Thursday in accordance with an order signed by U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez, Jr., who is overseeing the case.

The court announced that following the hearing, it would determine whether a transcript of the hearing or a portion of it may be made available to the public without prejudicing Atkinson’s right to a fair trial.

Late Thursday afternoon, no transcript or order on the decision to publish a transcript had been filed in the court’s record.

Issued on Wednesday, the order concluded that “conducting the hearing publicly will create the substantial likelihood of prejudicing the defendant’s right to a fair trial and the interest of the public and the Government in the fair administration of justice.”

Rodriguez found that “alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect these rights and interests, and that the closure is reasonably likely to be effective in protecting against the perceived risk of prejudice.”

Atkinson faces eight federal counts including conspiracy, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, and violation of the Travel Act-State Bribery Law. Authorities arrested the trustee and former Texas Southmost College employee in December.

An indictment handed down by a federal grand jury accused the Brownsville Independent School District trustee of 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.

Thursday’s hearing was held in relation to sealed events entered into the court record on July 17 and Feb. 5. Another sealed event was filed on July 24, but the record did not indicate that any motions stemming from the event were adjudicated.

Following the hearing, Rodriguez signed an order granting a motion submitted early this month by Atkinson’s attorneys in which she asked that all government agents and law enforcement officials who investigated the case retain their rough notes.

According to the motion filed July 6, prosecutors provided certain materials to Atkinson and her attorneys for review, but allegedly did not include rough notes or drafts of reports. In particular, her attorneys sought “contemporaneous notes from witness observations or interviews that may have occurred.”

“Discussions among law enforcement and witnesses, particularly confidential informants, likely contain exculpatory or contradictory statements, and statements favorable to the defense, which may not be reflected in charging documents or official reports,” the motion argued.

Atkinson has pleaded not guilty to the charges. If convicted, she faces a sentence of up to 45 years and a fine that could total $2 million, in addition to any assets subject to forfeiture, according to the indictment.

At the state level, a case to remove Atkinson from her position as vice president of the BISD Board is pending. A status hearing is scheduled for Aug. 14 in the 107th state District Court of Cameron County.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com