SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s former secretary of education and five other people were arrested Wednesday on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors, federal officials said.
Federal officials said Wednesday morning that former Education Secretary Julia Keleher; former Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration head Ángela Ávila-Marrero; businessmen Fernando Scherrer-Caillet and Alberto Velázquez-Piñol, and education contractors Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza, who are sisters, were arrested by the FBI on 32 counts of fraud and related charges.
The alleged fraud involves $15.5 million in federal funding between 2017 and 2019. Thirteen million was spent by the Department of Education during Keleher’s time as secretary while $2.5 million was spent by the insurance administration when Ávila was the director.
Officials said there was no evidence that Keleher or Ávila-Marrero had personally benefited from the scheme.
U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez said Velázquez Piñol had improperly taken advantage of contacts in the education and health insurance agencies to win federal contracts and illegally used federal money to pay for lobbying.
Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza worked as Keleher’s assistant and both she and her sister were friends of the former education secretary. Officials said Keleher bypassed regular bidding procedures to steer contracts toward her friends.
“It was alleged that the defendants engaged in a public corruption campaign and profited at the expense of the Puerto Rican citizens and students. This type of corruption is particularly egregious because it not only victimizes tax payers, it victimizes those citizens and students that are in need of educational assistance,” said Neil Sanchez, special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General’s Southern Region.
Rodríguez said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was not involved in the investigation.
Rosselló said he was returning early from vacation in Europe to meet with legislators and members of his administration about the investigation.
“To maintain the trust of the people in the institutions of the government is a constant challenge that all of us who work in public service have,” he said in a statement. “That trust is torn when public officials or those related, are accused of crimes of corruption.”
Multiple Puerto Rican officials over a series of administrations have been hit by charges of corruption and misuse of funds.
“It’s a shame that we see this type of scheme, one after another,” Rodríguez said. “There’s much work to be done in Puerto Rico ... this is the type of case that’s been seen so much, involving federal funds, and it’s shameful.”