Case against Atkinson underway; BISD trustee faces bribery charges

The bribery case against Brownsville Independent School District Trustee Sylvia Atkinson got underway Monday in U.S. District Court in Brownsville.

U.S. Attorneys Jody L. Young and Robert S. Johnson began prosecution for the government’s case, with Atkinson’s attorneys Noe D. Garza and E. Dale Robertson defending her on charges she solicited and accepted a $10,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as an employee of the local film production and advertising company Pink Ape Media.

A federal grand jury indicted Atkinson in December 2019 on eight counts of bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and violation of the state travel act bribery statute. If convicted, she faces  up to 45 years in prison and a fine that could total $2 million, in addition to any funds subject to forfeiture.

The case is being heard by a jury of seven women and five men, which has been semi-sequestered due the COVID-19 pandemic. The case is set for 10 days before U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr.

Attorneys presented opening statements Monday morning, after which prosecutors began presenting their case. Young’s first witness was Rodrigo Moreno, owner of Pink Ape Media in Brownsville. Moreno said the company produces print and video advertising. As well, Moreno is a producer of independent movies, one of which, “The Hole,” was shot in Brownsville, won indie film awards, and in which Atkinson was an investor with a 30% stake, he testified.

However, Moreno also was living in the United States without documentation when in about 2013 he obtained an S Visa to serve as an undercover FBI informant, through which he obtained legal resident status and hoped eventually to obtain legal residency and one day U.S. citizenship. He said his presence in the U.S. developed from him and his wife overstaying their tourist visas and their daughter being a U.S. citizen by virtue of being born here.

Pink Ape Media developed after his college days in Mexico, during which he studied to be a graphic artist, he said. Later, he would become involved in campign advertising for political candidates including former BISD Board President Cesar Lopez, and Atkinson during her 2016 run for the BISD Board of Trustees, his testimony indicated.

The case also involves the Rio Hondo Independent School District, where Atkinson worked as an assistant superintendent, that district’s purchase of tablet computers in 2015, Pink Ape’s preparation of a Power Point presentation for Jaime Escobedo of American Security Systems, a vendor, and Atkinson’s alleged role in proof reading the presentation and guiding American Security through the bidding process.

Testimony in the trial continues today.

glong@brownsvilleherald.com