School board leader sentenced in corruption scheme

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas – The former vice president of the Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) Board of Trustees has been ordered to federal prison following her convictions of conspiracy and corruption, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery.

A Brownsville federal jury returned guilty verdicts Nov. 4, 2020, against Sylvia P. Atkinson, 49, Brownsville, following an eight-day 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.

Today, U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr., who presided over the trial, ordered Atkinson to serve a total 80-month sentence to be followed by three years of supervised release. The Judge also imposed a $35,000 fine to be paid immediately.

In handing down the sentence, Judge Rodriguez noted how Atkinson’s crime took on great significance because of the abuse of the public trust and the need for a sentence that will deter others from engaging in similar conduct. The court specifically found Atkinson had lied extensively in her testimony at trial and assessed an obstruction of justice enhancement at sentencing. Judge Rodriguez further commented that Atkinson’s story on the stand unbelievable and clearly a lie.

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Atkinson was elected to the BISD Board of Trustees Nov. 4, 2016, and appointed vice president in 2018. During her career in education, she has served as the superintendent of Socorro, Santa Rosa and Los Fresnos school districts, assistant superintendent of BISD and Rio Hondo ISD (RHISD) and the executive director of High School Programs and Community Outreach at Texas Southmost College. 

During trial, the jury heard from several witnesses including BISD Board of Trustees members and its attorney as well as officials of Texas Education Agency and Texas Association of School Boards. They detailed how Atkinson orchestrated a long-running criminal scheme to solicit bribes from vendors seeking to obtain contracts with BISD and RHISD.

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From December 2018 through February 2019, Atkinson solicited and received a $10,000 bribe related to a film crew’s potential use of BISD facilities for filming a purported Hollywood movie. She also received illegal campaign contributions in 2014 and 2016 for her and another person.

The jury also heard how she had set up a shadow company with sales employees from potential educational and telehealth vendors who desired to do business with BISD and RHISD. Atkinson arranged both school meetings although she knew there was a conflict of interest in doing so. She also set up the company to hide her involvement and potential profit from any business those vendors obtained with BISD and RHISD. 

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The defense attempted to convince the jury that she had been acting as a “consultant” when she accepted payment. The jury, however, found the payments were bribes and found her guilty as charged.

Atkinson was permitted to remain on bond and voluntarily surrender to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.  

The FBI conducted the investigation with the assistance of the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office and Brownsville Police Department. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jody Young and Robert S. Johnson prosecuted the case.

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