Former BISD trustee files appeal from prison while serving bribery sentence

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Sylvia P. Atkinson, the former Brownsville Independent School District board vice president serving a six-and-a-half-year federal sentence for conspiracy, extortion and bribery, has filed an appeal from prison asking a judge to vacate, set aside or correct her sentence.

Atkinson filed the petition on her own behalf on Monday, claiming her bribery conviction cannot stand based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions in “honest services” offenses going back to at least 2010.

The petition, a typewritten 38-page document numbering 9,522 words and, apparently, written by Atkinson, contends her attorneys failed to adequately warn her about the dangers of testifying on her own behalf when an early plea of guilty could have yielded a reduced sentence based on her post-arrest cooperation in successful prosecutions.

On May 26, 2021, U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr., who presided over an eight-day trial in Brownsville, ordered Atkinson, then 49, to federal prison following her convictions for conspiracy, corruption and bribery.

A Brownsville federal jury had returned guilty verdicts on Nov. 4, 2020, against Atkinson, following the trial. She was convicted of one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and six counts of Travel Act violations and was sentenced to a total of 80 months in prison and ordered to immediately pay a $35,000 fine.

The petition contends that Atkinson’s attorneys “provided constitutionally inadequate representation of counsel by failing to properly investigate and present the evidence” Atkinson had presented to them.

It also argues that her attorneys failed to prepare for the penalty phase of the proceeding and sentencing hearing.

Atkinson is serving the sentence at the Federal Prison Camp in Bryan near Houston, a minimum-security prison for female inmates operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Atkinson and her attorneys, Noe Garza, of Brownsville, and Randolph Schaffer, of Houston, appealed her conviction to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, but the judgment against her was affirmed, according to her motion to vacate, set aside or correct sentence.

The petition asks the court to “order an immediate evidentiary hearing, appoint counsel to represent petitioner in subsequent proceedings, and grant petitioner a reasonable bail during the pendency of the proceeding.”

Former Brownsville Independent School District trustee Sylvia P. Atkinson is seen with her defense attorney Josh Schaffer after her sentencing hearing May 25, 2021 on federal bribery charges. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Atkinson does not dispute the facts in the case, which she says all boil down to bribery.

“The basic facts surrounding this matter are voluminous and complicated, but not in serious dispute. Count One of the superseding indictment alleged that Petitioner engaged in a conspiracy to commit bribery by using her positions as an official of the Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) and the Rio Hondo Independent School District (RHISD) and as an elected BISD trustee to extort money from a Cooperating Individual (C1), an Undercover officer (UC), to the school districts’ purchases of computer tablets and other goods and services and for a ‘purported movie production project,’” the petition states.

In November 2020, 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 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 BISD board meeting.

The principal charge on which Atkinson was convicted involved soliciting and accepting a $10,000 bribe related to the movie project, but pre-sentencing reports placed the amount of money Atkinson received in matters at issue in the case at $56,000, Brownsville Herald archives indicate.

Atkinson’s petition includes a narrative that amounts to her version of the facts in the case.

“The government produced evidence that Rodrigo Fernando Hernandez, an illegal immigrant, provided campaign media services for political candidates through his company, Pink Ape Media Consulting. …The FBI offered to protect him from deportation and help him attain legal status in exchange for his cooperation with criminal investigations; it paid him more than $40,000, including reimbursement of expenses,” the petition states.

“Petitioner then invested $30,000 in a movie Moreno made in Brownsville called, ‘The Whole.’ … It appeared in film festivals and won some awards, and she stood to make $250,000 if it could sell for $750,000,” the petition states.

The petition characterizes Atkinson as having been prosecuted based on an underlying charge of bribery involving a federally funded program.

“In actuality, the case was the sort of prosecution for ‘honest services’ fraud routinely filed by the government, until U.S. Supreme Court decisions effectively ended that type of prosecution, except for certain prescribed-fact situations,” the petition states.

“The facts of the case show that the ‘bribe’ involved a fictitious project that never jeopardized any of the federal funds that formed the tenuous jurisdictional connection that permitted a federal prosecution in the first place. Unfortunately, for the government, this action must now fail because it is an obvious attempt to bypass United States Supreme Court holdings, from at least 2010, that have repeatedly stymied federal prosecutions in the area of alleged public corruption based upon the ‘honest services’ theory,” the petition states.

Former Brownsville Independent School District trustee Sylvia P. Atkinson speaks to her defense attorney Josh Schaffer after her sentencing hearing May 25, 2021 on federal bribery charges. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

In a video shown Oct. 27, 2020 during her trial, Atkinson, Moreno and the undercover FBI agent in the case meet in Moreno’s office the day after a key item was approved by the BISD Board of Trustees. They agree that they should work together on the film project and other unnamed projects requiring approval of government entities.

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

During her sentencing hearing, Atkinson’s attorneys revealed she suffered from a gambling addiction.

“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 then. “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.”

In testimony on Oct. 25, 2020, Moreno revealed that he was living in Brownsville with his wife and daughter without documentation when he started Pink Ape Media. He said he qualified for an S Visa when he volunteered to work undercover for the FBI and provide information about political candidates for whom he did advertising.

Under questioning from Noe Garza, Moreno revealed that he did political advertising around 2008-2009 for Rene Oliveira, Eduardo Camarillo, former county judge Carlos Cascos, and Sylvia Atkinson’s brother, Charlie Atkinson, during his run for the Brownsville City Commission.

Atkinson’s projected release day from prison is in March of 2026.