Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Former Puerto Rico education secretary indicted in bribery and fraud scheme

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Puerto Rico’s former Education Secretary Julia Keleher — once considered a rising star and crusading reformer in education circles — has been indicted on allegations she used school land for personal gain, the FBI announced Wednesday.

The FBI said Keleher and Ariel Gutiérrez-Rodríguez had been indicted by a Puerto Rico grand jury on Tuesday in the bribery and fraud scheme.

The indictment alleges that Keleher used her position to give 1,034 square feet of a school called Padre Rufo to a company associated with Gutiérrez-Rodríguez in exchange for “financial benefits” connected to her leasing and purchasing an apartment in the Ciudadela apartment complex in San Juan.

The Padre Rufo school lies a block away from Ciudadela, a mix of high-end apartments and commercial space that has been credited with reviving the Santurce area of the island’s capital. Local media have identified Gutiérrez-Rodríguez as a real estate developer.

The charges are merely allegations, and the defendants’ guilt or innocence will be determined in court. But if they’re found guilty, they could face sentences of up to 10 years for conspiracy and bribery, and up to 20 years for wire fraud.

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“Public corruption continues to erode the trust between government officials and our citizens. Defendant Keleher exploited her government position to benefit herself and other private individuals,” U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow said in a statement. “Government officials are entrusted with performing their duties honestly and ethically. When they fail to do so, they will be held to account.”

Keleher was a prominent figure of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration and took on the teachers’ union and decades of tradition as she tried to shake up the island’s education system. In particular, she called for the closing and consolidation of hundreds of schools, particularly after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Keleher was initially detained in July 2019 on corruption allegations, along with five other people, including the former director of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, and Alberto Velázquez Piñol, an executive at BDO Puerto Rico, an auditing firm that until recently worked closely with the government.

Rosselló stepped down in August after the contents of a crude and crass chat group he was in were made public.

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Gutiérrez-Rodríguez was convicted in 2007 for his role in bankrupting Caguas Federal Bank, costing the federal government $300 million, local media reported.

“Anyone involved in the bribery of a public official seeks to put their own interests above those of the People of Puerto Rico. However, those corrupt parties will eventually pay a much higher price to the criminal justice system, and we will continue to deliver them to the federal courthouse,” Douglas Leff, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI, said in a statement. “This has been our commitment to the people of Puerto Rico and one we intend to keep in the years to come.”

Puerto Rico’s schools have been closed since a magnitude 6.4 earthquake rattled the island on Jan. 7, killing one person and damaging more than 550 buildings. The government says it will inspect all public schools — more than 800 — before classes resume.

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