Two years in the past, federal brokers arrested Puerto Rico’s former training secretary, Julia Keleher, as a part of a sprawling corruption investigation whose accusations helped uncork public dissatisfaction with the island’s leaders and contributed to the livid ouster of a younger and bold governor.
The accusations in opposition to Ms. Keleher and one other prime official set off the very first protests in the summertime of 2019 in opposition to former Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló, prompting him to rush house from a household trip in France to what would end up to be his ultimate frenzied weeks in workplace.
On Friday, a federal choose in Puerto Rico sentenced Ms. Keleher to serve six months in jail and 12 months of home arrest and pay a $21,000 advantageous. She had pleaded responsible in June to two felony counts involving conspiracies to commit fraud.
Ms. Keleher’s sentencing got here amid a brand new spate of corruption arrests — three mayors in three weeks — that has dominated headlines in Puerto Rico. One former mayor, who pleaded responsible to conspiracy to commit bribery and obtain kickbacks, was accused this month of awarding contracts price almost $10 million to an asphalt firm that paid him off with money and luxurious wristwatches.
Ms. Keleher, who resigned in April 2019, pleaded responsible to a cost that she organized for funds to a politically related guide underneath a federal contract that didn’t permit for subcontractors.
She additionally pleaded responsible to signing a letter endorsing the switch of 1,034 sq. toes of public college land to an actual property developer within the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, the capital. In return, the developer rented her an residence in an adjoining constructing named Ciudadela from June to December of 2018 for $1. She was later given a $12,000 incentive bonus, funded by the developer, 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 heartache any of the actions that I took while serving as secretary have caused,” Ms. Keleher, 47, mentioned throughout a video listening to earlier than Judge Pedro A. Delgado Hernández of the United States District Court in Puerto Rico. It was her first time talking in regards to the case as a result of the court docket had beforehand positioned her and others concerned underneath a gag order.
Ms. Keleher’s plea settlement considerably narrowed the allegations in opposition to her, which at one level had included fees of identification theft and bribery. Initial fees that she steered a $13 million federal contract to a politically related guide had been dropped.
In a subsequent cellphone interview, Ms. Keleher acknowledged making “mistakes” — some that led to legal fees and others that made many Puerto Ricans despise her — however harassed that she had not stolen cash or steered it away from college students or lecturers.
Instead, she insisted that the various adjustments she tried to make within the island’s training system throughout her quick tenure threatened highly effective political pursuits.
“I wasn’t communicating well, and I, culturally, was inept,” she mentioned. “I didn’t appreciate the culture or the context or what I represented.” Her “let’s charge ahead” method, she mentioned, struck Puerto Ricans as an outsider who had come to inform them what to do and rob them of their very own company.
In the greater than two years since her arrest, Ms. Keleher has grow to be an emblem of the corruption, each actual and perceived, that has plagued the territory for many years. A former training secretary, Víctor Fajardo, served a decade in federal jail after siphoning greater than $4 million in federal funds to himself and his political social gathering.
Her case provided a glimpse into the interior workings of a authorities that has struggled by means of monetary chapter and hurricane restoration. Consultants have performed an outsize position as a result of Puerto Rico lacks a civil service with the capability to deal with administrative issues in-house — partly as a result of such a big proportion of public workers are political appointees quite than profession staff with institutional experience.
Federal information recommend that corruption just isn’t extra frequent in Puerto Rico than it’s elsewhere. An evaluation by the United States Sentencing Commission discovered that, in 2020, about 0.2 % of federal offenders in Puerto Rico had been concerned in bribery and corruption crimes, in contrast with 0.4 % on the nationwide degree.
But many Puerto Ricans mistrust the federal government that sank them in debt and failed to adequately reply after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Even earlier than her arrest, Ms. Keleher, who’s from Philadelphia, was deeply unpopular for closing a whole bunch of public faculties due to low enrollment. She upset lecturers’ unions for championing an training reform invoice that approved constitution faculties and stoked fears in regards to the privatization of public training. She pushed to decentralize the Education Department, Puerto Rico’s largest authorities company, to create areas that operated extra like native college districts, eroding the ability of among the division’s directors.
The college closures got here after the fiscal board that oversees Puerto Rico’s funds required main cutbacks, however critics mentioned Ms. Keleher ignored pleas from college students and oldsters in distant cities to hold faculties open quite than pressure them to make lengthy commutes with none public transit accessible.
“The massive school closures that she led are something for which she will never serve one day in jail,” Mercedes Martínez Padilla, the top of a lecturers’ union, mentioned on Friday. “That was a crime against the children of our country.”
Most shuttered faculties, she famous, have grow to be public nuisances attracting drug customers, wild horses and homeless folks.
In the interview, Ms. Keleher mentioned she felt the radiating anger in opposition to her when she made her first public look in federal court docket in San Juan after her arrest. A crowd of protesters swarmed the courthouse.
Their ire, she mentioned, appeared motivated each by the corruption fees and by the anger over the college closures. Making issues worse was her standing as a non-Puerto Rican who appeared to be dismissing native communities and their historical past in a territory the place many individuals have lengthy felt oppressed by colonialism.
But she maintained that, whereas many Puerto Ricans might dislike her, the massive adjustments she tried to undertake had been vital and stay unfinished.
The college system has getting older infrastructure, and plenty of poor and particular training college students are susceptible to dropping out. Early within the coronavirus pandemic, many college students didn’t have sufficient web or pc entry for distant education. Before that, a flurry of earthquakes within the southwestern a part of the island uncovered critical development flaws that pressured some college buildings to shut.
Ms. Keleher mentioned that faculties had previous textbooks. The distribution of assets was uneven. Teachers lacked skilled coaching. Without a centralized payroll and attendance system, it was inconceivable to maintain folks accountable for displaying up to work — an issue exacerbated by the various political appointees rotating out and in of the division after each election.
“Every four years you have an almost entirely new agency,” mentioned Laura Jimenez, an training coverage skilled on the Center for American Progress, who overlapped with Ms. Keleher on the U.S. Department of Education through the Obama administration. Ms. Jimenez later labored as a guide for the Puerto Rico Education Department. “That’s no way to run any organization, let alone a government organization.”
Last 12 months, an assistant to Ms. Keleher and the assistant’s sister pleaded responsible to conspiracy to commit fraud. They have but to be sentenced, suggesting doable cooperation with prosecutors. A guide concerned within the transaction with the college land and residence has pleaded not responsible and is scheduled for trial in February.
Four different folks accused of participating in a fraud scheme involving $15.5 million in federal funding — together with Ángela Ávila Marrero, the previous govt director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration — have pleaded not responsible and are awaiting trial.
The case pressured Ms. Keleher to promote her Washington house and transfer in together with her mother and father exterior Philadelphia, the place she logged into her sentencing listening to. She has been making a dwelling by instructing English on-line — together with, she mentioned, to resettled Afghan refugees.
She selected not to return to San Juan to be sentenced in individual.
Kirsten Noyes contributed analysis.