Testimony continues in Atkinson case; BISD trustee faces bribery charges

Jurors heard more testimony Wednesday in a case to decide whether Syllvia P. Atkinson solicited and accepted a $10,000 bribe to get favorable consideration for a proposed movie about border life by the Brownsville Independent School District Board of Trustees, as prosecutors allege.

Atkinson is facing eight counts of bribery in connection with a movie project that was in the exploratory stages in February 2019 when she was president of the BISD Board of Trustees. The case began that December when a federal grand jury indicted her on bribery charges surrounding the purported movie project and a Feb. 12, 2019 board meeting.

So far, government prosecutors have presented evidence in an attempt to show that Atkinson was paid $4,000 to get an item placed on the Feb. 12 agenda giving Pink Ape Media, a Brownsville advertising and film production company, permission to explore producing a film using BISD facilities as the shooting location, and $6,000 when the item received board approval.

Testimony has indicated the film was to be based on “The Whole,” an award-winning short film produced by Pink Ape owner Rodrigo Moreno. Atkinson was an investor in the project. Meanwhile, Moreno was also an FBI informant who recorded telephone conversations and meetings between him and Atkinson to prepare the agenda item for submission for the Feb. 12 meeting, prosecutors say.

The item appeared on the agenda as an item proposed by the administration, rather than as being proposed a board member, testimony on Wednesday indicated.

Prosecutors say Atkinson authored the agenda item behind the scenes, and the item was submitted as though Sylvia Hatton, then the acting BISD superintendent, had written it. The item read, “Recommend approval to collaborate with Pink Ape Media on a feasibility plan for utilizing district facilities for a film project. Plan is subject to final approval by the District and Board of Trustees.”

The story line is about a boy who grows up with one foot in Brownsville and the other in Matamoros, discussion of the agenda item indicated. Board members also referred to the movie “End Game,” which was filmed on BISD property.

In testimony Monday, U.S. Attorney Jody Young introduced a recording and transcription of a Jan. 17 phone call between Moreno and Atkinson, Moreno says he is sick and having trouble composing the letter to Hatton, who is to assume her duties as superintendent the following Monday. Atkinson says she will compose letter about the proposed agreement to place on the Feb. 12 agenda as a board request, but that Moreno needs to email it to Hatton. She instructs him to blind copy her on the email to Hatton so that her participation remains confidential.

At one point Atkinson can be heard saying she is sure she can push the proposal through. It passes 7-0.

In a video secretly recorded by Moreno and shown to the jury on Monday, Atkinson, Moreno and an undercover FBI agent meet in Moreno’s office the next day, celebrate the item’s approval, and agree that they should work together on the film project and other unnamed projects requiring approval of government entities.

Atkinson can be seen receiving what prosecutors allege was $6,000 as the second payment on a $10,000 bribe that Moreno earlier testified to. Atkinson winks and exults that she “sold the project as a local project.” Young also introduced as evidence photos of Atkinson making a cash deposit at a Wells Fargo ATM the same day.

glong@brownsvilleherald.com

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Jury sees video of alleged bribery in Atkinson trial

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Case against Atkinson underway; BISD trustee faces bribery charges