Julia Keleher, Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary, Sentenced to 6 Months in Federal Prison on 2 Felony Corruption Charges

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Julia Keleher, the embattled former education secretary in Puerto Rico who oversaw large-scale reforms to the island’s faltering public schools, will serve six months in federal prison after being sentenced Friday for fraud conspiracy.

Keleher, who served as Puerto Rico’s top education official from January 2017 until April 2019, pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud, both felonies. Following her prison term, the once-rising education star will serve a year under monitored house arrest and was ordered to pay a $21,000 fine. 

Her sentencing marks the end of a yearslong, high-profile criminal probe that took multiple twists and turns since her initial arrest in 2019. In the plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors earlier this year, Keleher admitted to honest services fraud conspiracy when she signed a letter giving a company permission to widen a street onto public school property in exchange for her renting an upscale apartment from June to December 2018 for just $1. As part of a deal with a San Juan real estate company, she received a $12,000 incentive to purchase a two-bedroom apartment in the luxury building for $295,000. 

She also admitted to conspiracy to commit wire fraud for “having agreed with others to devise a scheme” that allowed a company to subcontract education department work to a 2016 gubernatorial candidate’s campaign manager. The action violated a contract which said the work couldn’t be subcontracted.

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Appearing in court remotely because of the pandemic, 47-year-old Keleher offered an apology to the people of Puerto Rico “for the pain and heartache any of the actions that I took while serving as secretary have caused.” 

 “The children of Puerto Rico are the smartest and most capable of any in the world, and they deserve an education system far better than the one they have,” she said as she audibly struggled to hold back tears. “I hope, now that I’ve pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges, that attention can be refocused to the importance of ensuring that Puerto Rico’s youth have access to the resources and learning opportunities that they so rightly deserve and the future of the island depends on.” 

Keleher’s arrest came three months after her resignation as education secretary, a position that netted her a $250,000-a-year salary, but was marked by significant controversy. She led the school system during the administration of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who also resigned in 2019 after his crude group-chat messages were leaked, prompting public outcry and widespread protests on the island. 

Keleher took the helm of Puerto Rico’s education department less than a year before its public schools were shuttered in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria. Keleher arrived with ambitions to reform Puerto Rico’s lackluster education system and, after the storm devastated schools across the island, she closed hundreds of schools permanently and ushered in its first charter schools and a private school voucher program. Those decisions and others put her in the center of fierce backlash. 

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Keleher and five others were first indicted in 2019 and accused of conspiring to illegally direct millions of dollars in federal funds to contractors who had personal ties to the defendants. About six months later, in January 2020, she faced a second indictment for allegations surrounding the luxury apartment building. Then, an August 2020 superseding indictment replaced the initial charges and accused Keleher of helping a firm led by a “close friend” secure an education department contract by disclosing confidential government documents, including the names and other personnel information of more than 6,000 Puerto Rico school employees. Keleher had initially pleaded not guilty. 

During Friday’s sentencing hearing at the U.S. District Court in San Juan, Keleher’s attorney Maria Dominguez requested that she serve her sentence at a federal prison for female inmates in either Alderson, West Virginia, or Danbury, Connecticut. The billionaire mogul Martha Stewart famously served time at the Alderson prison camp. Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series, is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, who spent a year in the Danbury prison. 

Keleher’s conviction comes as federal officials seek to improve a public school system that has struggled for decades. In September, the U.S. Department of Education launched a task force to assist local education leaders in several areas, including financial management. In March, Puerto Rico was given nearly $1 billion in federal funds to help its schools recover from the pandemic.

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Enrollment in Puerto Rico’s schools was declining even before Hurricane Maria, but the crippling storm exacerbated an outward migration to states like Florida and Massachusetts. Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s schools served roughly 350,000 students, nearly 100,000 more than it does today. 

Prior to her arrest, Keleher consistently portrayed herself as a maligned crusader against widespread corruption within an entrenched bureaucracy. During a forceful 2019 speech at a Yale University Education conference, she suggested that she became a victim. 

“Who you knew determined what job you had, irrespective of your experience or your capacity to perform,” she told a packed ballroom. “[Ending that practice] won me armies of people that literally would have been happy to take my head off.” 

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She made similarly forceful statements on Friday after Hon. Pedro Delgado-Hernandez found her guilty. A gag order lifted Friday had previously prohibited Keleher, who has been staying with her parents outside Philadelphia, and her attorneys from discussing the allegations against her. 

“The origins of my case have to do with the dysfunction of Puerto Rico’s Department of Education and political powers that desire to maintain the status quo,” she said in a statement provided to The 74, adding that she ultimately was not convicted on any of the initial charges filed against her in July 2019. “There is no allegation I took money away from students, teachers or schools. I would never want to do anything to deprive any child, or any person, of their rights to education.”

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