U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. on Wednesday sentenced former BISD Board of Trustees Vice President Sylvia Atkinson to 6 1/2 years in federal prison for conspiracy, extortion and bribery.
Rodriguez handed down the sentence at the conclusion of a sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Brownsville that lasted about an hour and during which Atkinson expressed remorse and contrition to her professional colleagues, her family, the students of Brownsville, the community and the voters.
“Dr. Atkinson will appeal. There are good issues in her case and it will take a couple of years to get them resolved. She is prepared to accept the consequences and we look forward to fight another day,” her attorney Josh Schaffer of Houston said, adding that the appeal would be to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
U.S. Attorney Robert S. Johnson characterized the sentence as “very fair and reasonable given the degree of abuse of public trust.” He added that the U.S. Attorney’s Office “takes public corruption cases very seriously.”
Rodriguez ordered Atkinson, who is free on $50,000 bond, to turn herself over to federal custody by noon June 18, pay a $35,000 fine, and to serve three years of probation upon her release from prison. The location of Atkinson’s imprisonment has yet to be determined, but Schaffer asked that it be somewhere in South Texas.
In November, a federal jury found Atkinson guilty on eight counts of conspiracy, extortion and bribery in connection with a movie project that was in the exploratory stages in February 2019 when she was vice president of the Brownsville Independent School District 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.
The principal charge on which Atkinson was convicted involved soliciting and accepting a $10,000 bribe related to the movie project, but presentencing reports placed the amount of money Atkinson received in matters at issue in the case at $56,000.
The hearing concerned adherence to statutory federal sentencing guidelines. Schaffer asked Rodriguez to craft a more lenient sentence based on findings in the report that Atkinson suffered from a gambling addiction that caused her to need more money than her positions with BISD and the Rio Hondo school district could supply.
Atkinson holds a doctorate in educational leadership, is a former superintendent, and has held leadership positions with BISD and the Rio Hondo school district.
“By all accounts she was very good at her job and apart from the very worst that the government wants you to focus on” she suffers from a gambling addiction, Schaffer said. “It is no secret to the court that she gambled excessively. It was like throwing gasoline on a fire. It drove her to need more money than she earned.”
Urging leniency, Schaffer said that Atkinson dedicated her life to caring for her parents and disabled brother, and was dedicated to her church and the school children of the public education system. He said the publicity her high-profile case has already received humiliated her and would have a sufficient deterrent effect. He also cited the five-year prison sentence former Hidalgo County U.S. District Judge Rudy Delgado received for “selling rulings from the bench” and said what Atkinson had done was not as bad.
In rebuttal, Johnson said Atkinson committed the same crime repeatedly over a period of years to feed her gambling addiction.
“People give all kinds of reasons for committing crimes. … She made the same decision over and over again: ‘I’m going to sell my public office to line my pockets’,” he said.
Rodriguez said he arrived at the sentence by considering a number of factors including the amount of money involved, the fact Atkinson was convicted by a jury of her peers, that the crime was committed over years and that he wanted the sentence to deter others from engaging in public corruption.