Brownsville Independent School District Trustee Sylvia Atkinson took the witness stand in her own defense Monday afternoon on charges she solicited and accepted a $10,000 bribe to advance a movie project being promoted by a local film production company, a behind-the-scenes Hollywood producer and investors from India.
Atkinson, who was the BISD board vice president at the time, took the stand after board attorney Baltazar Salazar testified he advised Atkinson the morning of a key meeting about the project about state and federal bribery laws and BISD conflict of interest guidelines requiring her to disclose a conflict if she had an interest of more than 10 percent in a project on which the board was going to vote.
A federal grand jury indicted Atkinson on eight counts of bribery stemming from an FBI investigation into the movie project, bid-rigging allegations on a $25,000 tablet computer pilot project in the Rio Hondo school district when she worked there, and alleged campaign contribution violations in 2014 in BISD.
Atkinson’s attorney Noe D. Garza contended on Friday that Atkinson had never confessed to taking the bribe. The assertion came after Brownsville FBI agent Michael Coblin testified on Friday that she had confessed.
Coblin testified that Atkinson confessed to taking the bribe after being presented on Aug. 24, 2019, with a series of audio and video recordings of her soliciting and taking the bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as the Hollywood producer.
According to the government, Atkinson was paid $4,000 for using her position as board vice president to get an item placed on the Feb. 12, 2019, board agenda authorizing a feasibility study about filming the movie using BISD facilities, and $6,000 when the board approved the feasibility study.
The government completed its case Monday morning, and Atkinson’s attorneys started theirs, calling Salazar as their first witness.
Earlier, Rodrigo Moreno, the owner of Pink Ape Media, a Brownsville film production company and advertising agency, testified that he was also an FBI informant who, at the FBI’s direction, began secretly recording phone conversations and meetings with Atkinson.
Moreno testified that he was an independent film producer and that Atkinson was an investor in a short film called “The Whole” that won several awards. Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez also was an investor, according to testimony.
Atkinson testified that she invested $37,000 in “The Whole,” and that she helped Moreno promote the film project approved by the board on Feb. 12. Her help included composing a letter to acting BISD superintendent Sylvia Hatton proposing the project. The letter refers to the movie “End Game,” which was based on the BISD chess program, and says the proposed movie would be something about the challenges of growing up on the border in this day and age.
Under questioning from Garza, Salazar said he discussed the elements of committing bribery with Atkinson, as well as the requirement to disclose a conflict of interest if a trustee has more than a 10 percent interest in the project.
However, under questioning from U.S. Attorney Robert S. Johnson, Atkinson admitted that she never told Salazar anything about investing money with Moreno in “The Whole.”
Late in the afternoon, attorneys disclosed the existence of an FBI-authorized wiretap of a conversation between Atkinson and former 404th state District Judge Elia Cornejo Lopez concerning a $1 billion lawsuit the judge filed against BISD concerning eligibility for advanced placement courses for her then-eighth-grade daughter.
The lawsuit had reached mediation and Lopez allegedly offered Atkinson $5,000 to secure hers and then-board member Erasmo Castro’s support to convince other board members to accept a $275,000 settlement offer in the lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. ruled that the conversation would be admitted as exculpatory evidence, meaning it could be used to determine Atkinson’s reliability and honesty as a witness.
The matter was to be taken up Tuesday morning.