Two years ago, federal agents arrested former Puerto Rican Secretary of Education Julia Keleher in a major corruption investigation whose accusations helped allay public discontent with the public. rulers of the island and contributed to the furious ousting of a young and ambitious governor.
The charges against Ms Keleher and another senior official sparked the very first protests in the summer of 2019 against former governor Ricardo A. Rosselló, prompting him to return home after a family vacation in France to what was to be her last frantic weeks at the office.
A federal judge in Puerto Rico on Friday sentenced Ms. Keleher to six months in prison and 12 months of house arrest and fined $ 21,000. She had pleaded guilty in June to two felony counts involving conspiracies to commit fraud.
Ms Keleher’s conviction came amid a new wave of corruption arrests – three mayors in three weeks – which made headlines in Puerto Rico. A former mayor, who pleaded guilty conspiracy to bribe and receive bribes, was accused this month of awarding contracts worth nearly $ 10 million to a company of asphalt that paid for it in cash and luxury wristwatches.
Ms Keleher, who resigned in April 2019, pleaded guilty to arranging payments to a politically connected consultant under a federal contract that did not allow subcontractors.
She also pleaded guilty to signing a letter approving the transfer of 1,034 square feet of land for a public school to a real estate developer in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, the capital. In return, the developer rented him an apartment in an adjacent building named Ciudadela from June to December 2018 for $ 1. She then received a developer-funded, $ 12,000 incentive bonus that helped her purchase the two-bedroom unit for $ 297,500.
“To the people of Puerto Rico, I would like to apologize for the pain and sorrow I have caused at any of the actions I have taken as secretary,” Ms. Keleher, 47, said during ‘a video hearing before Judge Pedro A. Delgado. Hernández of the United States District Court in Puerto Rico. It was the first time she had spoken about the case because the court had already placed her and others involved under a gag order.
Ms Keleher’s plea deal significantly reduced the allegations against her, which at one point included charges of identity theft and bribery. Initial charges that she ran a $ 13 million federal contract with a politically connected consultant have been dropped.
In a subsequent telephone interview, Ms Keleher admitted to making “mistakes” – some which led to criminal charges and others which caused many Puerto Ricans to despise her – but stressed that she did not. not steal money or embezzle money from students or teachers.
Instead, she insisted that the many changes she had attempted to make to the island’s education system during her short tenure threatened powerful political interests.
“I didn’t communicate well and, culturally, I was inept,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate the culture or the context or what I stood for.” Her “let’s go ahead” approach, she said, struck Puerto Ricans like a stranger who had come to tell them what to do and rob them of their own agency.
More than two years after her arrest, Ms Keleher has become an emblem of the corruption, both real and perceived, which has plagued the territory for decades. Former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo spent a decade in federal prison after siphoning more than $ 4 million in federal funds from himself and his political party.
His case offered insight into the inner workings of a government struggling with financial bankruptcy and hurricane recovery. Consultants have played a disproportionate role because Puerto Rico lacks a civil service with the capacity to handle administrative matters internally – in part because such a large proportion of public employees are political appointments rather than political appointments. career workers with institutional expertise.
Federal data suggests corruption is no more common in Puerto Rico than elsewhere. A United States Sentencing Commission analysis found that in 2020, about 0.2% of federal offenders in Puerto Rico were involved in corruption offenses, compared to 0.4% nationally.
But many Puerto Ricans are suspicious of the government that put them in debt and failed to respond adequately after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Even before her arrest, Ms Keleher, from Philadelphia, was deeply unpopular for shutting down hundreds of public schools due to low enrollment rates. She upset teachers’ unions for defending an education reform bill that allowed charter schools and stoking fears about the privatization of public education. She pushed to decentralize the Department of Education, Puerto Rico’s largest government agency, to create regions that function more like local school districts, eroding the power of some of the department’s administrators.
The school closings came after the tax council that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances called for deep cuts, but critics said Ms Keleher ignored calls from students and parents in remote towns to keep schools open rather than forcing them to make long journeys with no public transportation available.
“The massive closures of schools that she has led is something for which she will never serve a single day in prison,” Mercedes Martínez Padilla, head of a teachers’ union, said on Friday. “It was a crime against the children of our country.”
Most of the closed schools, she noted, have become a public nuisance attracting drug addicts, wild horses and the homeless.
In the interview, Ms Keleher said she felt radiating anger against her when she made her first public appearance in federal court in San Juan after her arrest. A crowd of demonstrators invaded the courthouse.
Their anger, she said, appeared to be driven both by accusations of corruption and anger over school closures. Worst of all was her status as a non-Puerto Rican who seemed to reject local communities and their history in a land where many people have long felt oppressed by colonialism.
But she maintained that while many Puerto Ricans may not like her, the big changes she tried to make were necessary and remain unfinished.
The school system has aging infrastructure and many poor and special education students are at risk of dropping out. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many students did not have adequate internet or computer access for distance education. Before that, a flurry of earthquakes in the southwestern part of the island revealed serious construction flaws that forced some school buildings to close.
Ms. Keleher said the schools had old textbooks. The distribution of resources was uneven. Teachers lacked professional training. Without a centralized pay and attendance system, it was impossible to hold people accountable for showing up for work – a problem exacerbated by the many political appointments entering and leaving the department after each election.
“Every four years you have an almost entirely new agency,” said Laura Jimenez, an education policy expert at the Center for American Progress, who straddled Ms. Keleher from the US Department of Education during the Obama administration. . Ms. Jimenez then worked as a consultant for the Puerto Rico Department of Education. “This is no way to run an organization, let alone a government organization.”
Last year, an assistant to Ms Keleher and the assistant’s sister pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit fraud. They have not yet been sentenced, which suggests possible cooperation with prosecutors. A consultant involved in the transaction with the school land and apartment has pleaded not guilty and is due to stand trial in February.
Four other people accused of participating in a fraud scheme involving $ 15.5 million in federal funding – including Ángela Ávila Marrero, the former executive director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration – have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial .
The case forced Ms Keleher to sell her home in Washington and move in with her parents outside of Philadelphia, where she logged in to her sentencing hearing. She makes a living teaching English online, including, she said, resettled Afghan refugees.
She chose not to return to San Juan to be sentenced in person.
Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.