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Judge Rejects Ex-Puerto Rico Schools Chief’s Bid to Relocate Fraud Trial

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 24, 2020 2 min read
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A federal judge in Puerto Rico has denied a request by Julia Keleher, the island’s former secretary of education, to have her trial on fraud charges moved from the U.S. territory to the mainland.

In an order issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Pedro A. Delgado-Hernández also denied a motion from Keleher seeking to modify a gag order on the case that her attorneys said was “unconstitutionally vague prior restraint” on her First Amendment rights. Delgado-Hernández set the trial date for February 2021.

Keleher, who served as the island’s top K-12 education official for nearly two-and-a-half years before resigning in April 2019, was arrested last summer by the FBI and charged with illegally steering millions of dollars in Puerto Rico Department of Education contracts to consultants, including in one instance to her close friends. She was not alleged to have personally benefitted from that activity and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track

In her motion to move the trial to a different venue, Keleher argued that she and the charges against her were too well-known in Puerto Rico for her to have a chance at a fair trial. To demonstrate her notoriety on the island, which she blamed in part on her arrest taking place amid a series of government scandals, Keleher said she had been physically assaulted on the island not long after the charges against her were made public. She also cited opinion research about her showing that a majority of those surveyed believed her to be guilty.

During her tenure, Keleher oversaw the island’s public school system through Hurricane Maria (which had roughly 350,000 students enrolled when the storm hit) and afterwards led major structural changes to her department, closed hundreds of schools, and backed new policy reforms such as charters. She won praise for her hard-charging approach to overhauling the K-12 system, but also drew the ire of those who believed she was disrupting the system without improving it.

The fraud case doesn’t represent all of the former education secretary’s legal troubles, however. Keleher was arrested against last month for allegedly getting a cut-price deal on a San Juan apartment in exchange for turning over public school property to a private company. She has also pleaded not guilty in this second case.

A defense attorney for Keleher, Lanny Davis, told the Associated Press last week that he didn’t know if she would appeal the judge’s decision not to select a new trial venue for the charges stemming from her 2019 arrest. As of Monday, no record of such an appeal was listed in court records.

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