Law & Courts

Puerto Rico’s Former Education Secretary Pleads Guilty to Fraud Conspiracy

By Syra Ortiz-Blanes, The Miami Herald — June 09, 2021 4 min read
In this Oct. 13, 2017 file photo, Education Secretary Julia Keleher gets a hug from a student at Ramon Marin Sola Elementary School, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Former Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher pleaded guilty to two federal fraud conspiracy charges Tuesday for crimes committed during her time as the island’s top education official, striking a felony plea bargain with prosecutors and potentially avoiding maximum jail time.

Keleher agreed to admit guilt on one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and another count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud at a hearing, in which she participated via video conference from Pennsylvania.

Should the court agree to the sentencing recommendations, Keleher will spend six months in federal prison followed by a year of house confinement. Prosecutors also recommended a fine of $21,000. The news comes just over two weeks since the former top education official filed a motion to change her plea, which alluded to the deal with the federal government.

Keleher headed the island’s struggling education system from January 2017 until April 2019, during former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's administration. Rosselló, who resigned during massive protests two years ago after the leak of a profanity-laced group chat, celebrated Keleher’s arrival. He described her as “excellent, extraordinary” and a “professional of global caliber.” Keleher received a salary of about $250,0000 in the post.

Puerto Rico’s education system faces massive challenges, including rebuilding infrastructure from hurricane and earthquake devastation, a student population in poverty with a high dropout risk, and a high proportion of children and adolescents who require special education.

Supporters viewed Keleher as new blood in the island government’s largest agency, which had a history of red tape, mismanagement and corruption. But detractors, a group which included teachers and educator unions, blasted the former governor for not appointing a secretary who had experience as a direct employee of the education department or in the local public school system. Many previous secretaries have been administrators or teachers of the agency.

Under Keleher’s leadership, the department planned to invest $44 million in federal funds for professional training and certification for educators. She also led a massive education reform, signed into law in 2018, that aimed to guarantee that every student would receive the same amount of resources to support their education.

But the former official encountered widespread criticism in response to some of her policies. She paved the way for Puerto Rico to open its first charter schools, which landed her in a court battle with a prominent teachers union. Keleher also shut down hundreds of schools during her tenure, which coincided with devastating Hurricane Maria. The government cited declining student enrollment as Puerto Ricans left the island en masse as a factor that contributed to the closures, but many felt it reduced access to education for affected communities.

The former secretary of education defended her decision.

“Somebody had to be the responsible adult in the room,” she said at an education conference at Yale University.

Keleher stepped down in April 2019, telling island newspaper El Nuevo Día that “it was the moment” to do so, adding that the agency needed another kind of leader. At the time, local media reported that the island’s education agency was under the lens of federal authorities over contract irregularities.

Three months later, Keleher was indicted on charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, and wire fraud conspiracy in a scheme to use “fraudulently obtained” public contracts to steal federal money along with multiple officials and associates, alleged the Department of Justice. Then, in January 2020, another federal grand jury indicted Keleher on charges of bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud. Keleher allegedly accepted a financial bonus to obtain a San Juan luxury apartment in exchange for over 1,000 square feet of a public school’s grounds to expand a street, according to the indictment documents.

The original charges in the first case were revised in August 2020. The superseding indictment, replacing the original, accused Keleher of 24 counts, including wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, wire fraud conspiracy and bribery.

In the plea agreement, which Keleher signed June 2, she admitted to offering the strip of land to widen a street in exchange for renting the upscale apartment in the Santurce neighborhood for $1. Keleher was also to receive a $12,000 incentive to later purchase a unit in the building.

Should the court accept the deal with prosecutors, remaining charges that haven’t been resolved will be dropped, according to the plea agreement. If the court rejects the negotiated deal, then Keleher would be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for September.

Keleher’s case has reminded many Puerto Ricans of the corruption scandal surrounding another former secretary of education. Víctor Fajardo, once the island’s top education official, was convicted of corruption in the early 2000s. Fajardo, who spent years in prison, stole millions in federal money for personal and political gain.

“It is disappointing that officials such as the former secretary take advantage of the privilege of public service and trust placed in them to serve themselves at the expense of our children and youth,” said Víctor Bonilla, president of the Teachers Association of Puerto Rico, following Keleher’s admission of guilt. “We also trust that this story will not repeat itself and that Julia Keleher is the last DE official we see under these circumstances.”

Related Tags:

Copyright (c) 2021, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts District Can Deny Opt-Outs on LGBTQ+ Books, Court Rules
Religious parents objected to a Maryland district's policy ending opt-outs for elementary school 'storybooks' with LGBTQ+ themes.
5 min read
A pedestrian passes by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Courthouse, June 16, 2021, on Main Street in Richmond, Va.
A person walks near the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit's courthouse in Richmond, Va. A panel of the court denied an injunction seeking to restore religious parents' opportunity to opt their children out of LGBTQ+ "storybooks" in a Maryland district.
Steve Helber/AP
Law & Courts Brown v. Board of Education: 70 Years of Progress and Challenges
The milestone for the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down racial segregation in schools is marked by a range of tributes
12 min read
People mill around the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse in front of a Brown v. Board of Education mural before hearing from speakers recognizing the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case on April 29, 2024 in Topeka, Kan.
People mill around the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse in front of a Brown v. Board of Education mural before hearing from speakers recognizing the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case on April 29, 2024 in Topeka, Kan.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
Law & Courts Republican-Led States Sue to Block New Title IX Rule
A pair of lawsuits focus on the rule's protections for students' gender identity.
5 min read
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus. Four Republican-led states filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Biden administration's new Title IX regulation, which among other things would codify protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus. Four Republican-led states filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Biden administration's new Title IX regulation, which among other things would codify protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Patrick Orsagos/AP
Law & Courts Why It Will Now Be Easier for Educators to Sue Over Job Transfers
The case asked whether transferred employees had to show a 'significant' change in job conditions to sue under Title VII. The court said no.
8 min read
Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022.
Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022. The high court on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, made it easier for workers, including educators, to sue over job transfers.
Patrick Semansky/AP