Ex-Education chief Keleher pleads guilty in corruption cases

By Pedro Correa Henry and John McPhaul

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Former island Education Secretary Julia Keleher, through a videoconference process at the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico in Hato Rey, pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges related to her role in a pair of corruption schemes.

According to press reports, Keleher reached a “Type C” agreement with the U.S. District Attorney’s Office, under which she would be serving six months in prison, 12 months of house arrest, and supervised release, in addition to paying a $21,000 fine.

However, Keleher needs the consent of the judge, who would be obliged to impart the same sentence as that in the agreement. Judge Francisco Augusto Besosa kept that consent in suspension after setting the sentencing hearing for Sept. 7.

“That’s what you did? That’s what you’re pleading guilty to?” Judge Besosa asked during the videoconference.

“Yes, your honor. Guilty, your honor,” Keleher replied.

One of the indictments is for wire fraud as part of a conspiracy to illegally pay salaries to a person through the companies Colón & Ponce and BDO in violation of contracts with the commonwealth agency that Keleher directed until April 2019.

The other indictment Keleher faces is for depriving honest services by conspiring on behalf of San Juan apartment complex Ciudadela to cede to its owners land occupied by Padre Rufo Bilingual School, owned by the Education Department, in exchange for a $1-per-month apartment for about seven months in 2018.

In the first indictment, a grand jury found cause to accuse Keleher of a million-dollar fraud scheme after the awarding of contracts at the agency to then-contractor Alberto Velázquez Piñol (BDO), Keleher’s special assistant Glenda Ponce and her sister, Mayra Ponce.

The sisters pleaded guilty in the case. The indictment also includes the former administrator of the Health Insurance Administration, Ángela Ávila, and certified public accountant Aníbal Jover.

In the second indictment, a grand jury also found cause against the former Education chief and engineer Ariel Gutiérrez in a scheme in which they allegedly ceded roughly 1,034 square feet from Padre Rufo School to the aforementioned apartment complex.

As reported in May, the former secretary, who served in the administration of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, filed a request with the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico to plead guilty to the pending cases against her.

The document reported that Keleher waived her physical appearance at the future hearing where the change of plea was to be heard; she agreed to appear virtually and also did so on Tuesday.

According to reports, if Besosa does not accept the plea bargain, then the entire process gets reversed and Keleher will go to trial on the two grand jury indictments with 33 counts between them.

Meanwhile, the prosecution risks having to dismiss at least half of the accusations due to new legal doctrines that affect the cases’ theories and the viability of prosecuting Keleher.

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