When ex-Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher was arrested last year on charges of fraud allegedly committed while in office, she wasn’t accused of materially benefitting from the scheme, in which the federal government accused her of directing Puerto Rico Department of Education contracts to friends, among other things.
But the charges at the center of Keleher’s arrest on Wednesday by the FBI are different. According to the indictment, Keleher used her position as education secretary to get a sweetheart deal on a two-bedroom apartment in Santurce, a relatively wealthy area of San Juan near the art museum and prominent beaches.
There’s no record of a plea yet from Keleher in federal court records. Maria Dominguez, a Puerto Rican attorney representing Keleher, said in an email that, “We assess the latest indictment as weak. We have already initiated our process of due diligence in investigating the allegations and have encountered serious factual inaccuracies in the indictment. This leads us to believe that the case was poorly investigated.”
In exchange for paying a $1-per-month on the apartment for about seven months in 2018—that monthly lease was valued at $1,500—and receiving a $12,000 “incentive bonus” to then purchase the apartment, Keleher agreed to let a company purchase roughly 1,034 square feet of land at the Padre Rufo school, the federal government alleges. Padre Rufo is a public bilingual school that’s about a five-minute walk from the apartment complex, called Ciudadela, where Keleher is alleged to have gotten the $1-per-month lease.
Among other things, in exchange for Keleher getting the drastically reduced lease rate on the apartment and the “incentive bonus,” Keleher signed a letter on Puerto Rico Department of Education letter ceding the space at the public school to the company, which is not named in the indictment but identified as “Company C” and as the owner of the Ciudadela apartments.
Here’s a screen capture of the Ciudadela apartment complex named in the indictment, from the apartment’s Instagram account:
In the indictment, Ariel Gutierrez-Rodriguez, a consultant, is accused of facilitating the scheme and acting on behalf of several companies, including the one that was slated to get the roughly 1,000 square feet at Padre Rufo. The indictment does not say whether the company repurposed this space at the school and, if so, how the company used the space.
“Julia Beatrice Keleher, the defendant herein, did corruptly solicit and demand for her own benefit, and accepted and agreed to accept things of value from Ariel Gutierrez-Rodriguez and others known and unknown to the Grand Jury,” the indictment states.
See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track
Keleher served as Puerto Rico’s education secretary from January 2017 to April 2019. She led the public school system through Hurricanes Irma and Maria in late 2017, and promised a big shake-up of a school system that had struggled fiscally and academically long before those devastating storms. She made several controversial decisions, including overhauling the education department’s bureaucratic structure, backing charter school and voucher laws, and deciding to close hundreds of public schools on the island.
Keleher resigned as the secretary and was arrested just over three months later, in July 2019, on fraud charges, to which she has pleaded not guilty (she was released on bond after that arrest). Through her attorneys, she has requested that any trial related to those charges take place outside of Puerto Rico, saying that the notoriety of the case and her tenure as education secretary would make it impossible for her to get a fair trial on the island.
Puerto Rico’s public education system has been dogged by allegations of mismanagement and lack of accountability. Shortly after Keleher’s arrest last July, a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of inspector general found a lack of oversight of federal disaster funds distributed after Hurricane Maria earmarked for instructional materials and other costs.
The island’s school system shut down last week after a series of earthquakes struck Puerto Rico, with the southwestern part of the island being the hardest hit, amid concerns about the structural integrity of schools. They were due to reopen later this month, although it’s unclear if all schools will get up and running on schedule.
In perhaps a grim bit of irony, the same day that news broke about Keleher’s arrest involving public school property, the Metro newspaper in Puerto Rico reported that 95 schools on the island were found to have asbestos, citing an Office for the Improvement of Public Schools analysis.
Read the new indictment against Keleher below:
Photo: Former Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher (Swikar Patel/Education Week)