By Evie Blad and Andrew Ujifusa
Julia Keleher, the former education secretary of Puerto Rico, was arrested by federal agents Wednesday in Washington on fraud charges stemming from allegations that she improperly steered millions of dollars in government contracts to consulting firms, including one run by her close friends.
Keleher, 44, faced praise and sharp criticism as she led the territory’s school system, which educates more than 300,000 students, through the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. She stepped down in April 2019, initially agreeing to remain as a paid adviser to the Puerto Rico’s education agency before later withdrawing from that position.
Keleher was arrested along with the island’s former director of health insurance administration, Angela Avila, and contractors who worked with the insurance and education departments, U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez said.
A grand jury indictment alleges she illegally steered a $95,000 Puerto Rico Department of Education contract through a corrupt bidding process to an unqualified firm run by her close associates at a consulting firm, Colón & Ponce. This firm was run by Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza, who are sisters and were also arrested. A separate count alleges a scheme through which she and others awarded more than $13 million in department contracts that included $220,000 in illegal commissions.
“This type of corruption is particularly egregious because it not only victimizes taxpayers, it victimizes those citizens and students who are in need of educational assistance,” said Neil Sanchez, the special agent in charge of the southern regional branch of the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s office, which investigates misuse of federal education funds.
See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Wednesday morning he planned to return from a vacation in Europe following arrests of public officials.
Es momento de estar presente en la Isla y reiterar en persona el mensaje de que la agenda de este gobierno no se detiene, a pesar de quienes han decidido, incorrectamente, faltar a la confianza del pueblo. pic.twitter.com/WOUILU0eOq
— Ricardo Rosselló (@ricardorossello) July 10, 2019
A message left for Keleher on Wednesday seeking comment was not returned.
During her tenure as education secretary, which lasted more than two years, Keleher said she was intent on overhauling Puerto Rico’s public schools even before Maria hit the island. Decrying a system that she said was inefficient and unhelpful for students and teachers, she broke up the department’s bureaucracy to provide more local control to different regions of the island, backed what became a landmark 2018 law to institute charter schools and vouchers, and approved the closure of hundreds of public schools due to low enrollment.
Her supporters said she was bringing much-needed change and energy to a system where students produced dismal academic results for years.
The U.S. Department of Education backed the island’s attempts to expand educational options. In a 2018 speech, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary of Education Frank Brogan said Puerto Rico would be a “beacon” of school choice and a “laboratory” for people to observe.
But her detractors, including the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s teachers’ union, alleged Keleher was defying the will of parents and educators and shattering the island’s public schools in the name of unproven solutions.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, the teachers’ union called Keleher’s arrest a “sad day” for the island’s public schools and highlighted its previous disagreements with Keleher.
Members of Congress had also criticized Keleher’s decision to close schools and Puerto Rico’s expansion of school choice.
“The proposal in Puerto Rico to transition to charter schools and the use of private school vouchers is one that mirrors what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in March 2018 remarks, about three weeks before a bill creating charters and vouchers was signed into law by Rosselló.
For more on the systemic issues faced by Puerto Rico’s schools, see this 2018 Education Week video:
Photo: Then Puerto Rican Education Secretary Julia Keleher worked to help schools reopen after Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)