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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Former Puerto Rican Education Minister Sentenced to Jail

Two years ago, federal agents arrested the former Puerto Rican education minister, Julia Keleher, as part of a massive corruption investigation that helped unleash public discontent with the island’s leaders and fueled the violent ouster of the young and ambitious governor.

The accusations against Ms Keleher and another senior official sparked the very first protests in the summer of 2019 against former governor Ricardo A. Rossello, prompting him to rush home from his family vacation in France to be his last. frantic weeks at the office.

On Friday, a federal judge in Puerto Rico sentenced Ms. Keleher to six months in prison, 12 months of house arrest and a $ 21,000 fine. In June, she pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud.

Ms. Keleher’s conviction comes amid a renewed wave of corruption-related arrests – three mayors in three weeks – that have dominated headlines in Puerto Rico. One former mayor, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribery and receive kickbacks, was charged this month with nearly $ 10 million in contracts with an asphalt company that paid him cash and a luxury wristwatch.

Ms Keleher, who resigned in April 2019, pleaded guilty to charges that she knew that a politically connected consultant would be paid to do work under a federal contract that did not allow the use of subcontractors.

She also pleaded guilty to signing a letter approving a road widening project that removed an obstacle to the development of land adjacent to the public school. The project required the abandonment of a 1,034-square-foot parcel of land from a school in the Santurce district of the capital San Juan. (The road widening project was approved by the government in 2003.)

In exchange for the letter, the developer rented her an apartment in a nearby building called Ciudadela from May to July 2018 for $ 1. She later received a $ 12,000 incentive bonus funded by a developer who helped her buy a two-bedroom apartment for $ 297,500.

“To the people of Puerto Rico, I would like to apologize for the pain and heartache caused by any of the actions I took while serving as secretary,” said 47-year-old Ms Keleher during a video hearing before Judge Pedro A. Delgado … Hernandez of the United States District Court in Puerto Rico. This was her first conversation about the case, because the court had previously placed her and the other participants on a trial ban.

Ms. Keleher’s plea agreement significantly narrowed down the charges brought against her, which at one point included charges of identity theft and bribery. Initial charges that she transferred a $ 13 million federal contract to a politically connected consultant were dropped.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Ms. Keleher admitted that she made “mistakes” – some of which led to criminal charges and others made many Puerto Ricans despise her – but stressed that she did not steal money or take it away from students or teachers.

Instead, she insisted that many of the changes she tried to make to the island’s education system during her short tenure threatened influential political interests.

“I didn’t communicate well and I was culturally inept,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate the culture, the context, or what I represented.” Her “let’s move forward” approach impressed Puerto Ricans as an outsider who came to tell them what to do and take away their free will, she said.

More than two years after her arrest, Ms. Keleher has become a symbol of the corruption, both real and perceived, that has plagued the territory for decades. Former education minister Victor Fajardo served ten years in federal prison after siphoning more than $ 4 million in federal funds for himself and his political party.

Her case provided a glimpse into the inner workings of a government that was struggling with financial bankruptcy and hurricane recovery. Consultants have played a huge role because Puerto Rico lacks a civil service that can handle administrative matters in-house, in part because so many civil servants are political appointees rather than career workers with institutional experience.

Federal data shows that corruption is no more widespread in Puerto Rico than anywhere else. An analysis by the US Sentencing Commission found that in 2020, about 0.2 percent of federal offenders in Puerto Rico were involved in bribery and corruption offenses, compared with 0.4 percent at the national level.

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But many Puerto Ricans do not trust the government, which absorbed their debts and failed to adequately respond to Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Even before her arrest, Ms. Keleher of Philadelphia was extremely unpopular due to the closure of hundreds of public schools due to low attendance. She upset teacher unions for advocating an education reform bill allowing charter schools and raised concerns about the privatization of public education. She pushed for decentralizing the Department of Education, Puerto Rico’s largest government agency, to create regions that were more like local school districts, undermining the authority of some department administrators.

The school closures came after the finance council, which oversees Puerto Rico’s finances, called for significant cuts, but critics said Ms Keleher ignored requests from students and parents in outlying cities to keep schools open rather than force them to make long trips. no public transport.

“The massive school closures she ran is something she’s never going to jail for,” teachers union head Mercedes Martinez Padilla said Friday. “It was a crime against the children of our country.”

She noted that most closed schools have become a public frustration attracting drug users, wild horses and homeless people.

In an interview, Ms. Keleher said she felt anger radiated against her when she first appeared publicly in federal court in San Juan following her arrest. A crowd of protesters filled the courthouse.

Their anger appeared to have been driven by both corruption allegations and anger at school closings, she said. The situation was compounded by her status as a non-German, who seemed to ignore local communities and their history in an area where many people long felt oppressed by colonialism.

But she argued that while many Puerto Ricans may not like her, the big changes she tried to make were necessary and left unfinished.

The infrastructure of the school system is aging, and many students from low-income families and students with special education are at risk of dropping out. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many students did not have access to the Internet or a computer for distance learning. Prior to this, a wave of earthquakes in the southwestern part of the island revealed serious construction defects, due to which some school buildings were closed.

Ms Keleher said that the schools have old textbooks. The distribution of resources was uneven. The teachers lacked professional training. Without a centralized payroll and attendance system, it was impossible to hold people accountable for showing up for work — a problem compounded by the fact that many political appointees change to and leave the department after every 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 worked with Ms. Keleher of the US Department of Education during the Obama administration. Ms. Jimenez later worked as a consultant for the Puerto Rico Department of Education. “This is not a way to run any organization, let alone a government organization.”

Last year, Ms Keleher’s assistant and the assistant’s sister pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit fraud. They have not yet been sentenced, which suggests possible cooperation with the prosecutor’s office. The consultant involved in the deal with the school and apartment has pleaded not guilty, and a trial is scheduled for February.

Four other people accused of being involved in a $ 15.5 million federal funding scam, including Angela Avila Marrero, 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 Washington home and move to live with her parents outside Philadelphia, where she entered the sentencing hearing. She makes a living teaching English online, including, she says, migrants from Afghanistan.

She chose not to return to San Juan for her own sentencing.

Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.

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