Six people, including Puerto Rico's former education secretary, were arrested in a sweeping corruption probe in which it's alleged that they steered federal funds to unqualified, politically connected contractors, federal officials said Wednesday.
The FBI arrested 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, on fraud and related charges.
“It was alleged that the defendants engaged in a public corruption campaign and profited at the expense of the Puerto Rican citizens and students," Neil Sanchez, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General's Southern Region, said in a Wednesday news conference. "This type of corruption is particularly egregious because it not only victimizes taxpayers, it victimizes those citizens and students that are in need of educational assistance."
The alleged fraud involved $15.5 million in federal money spent between 2017 and 2019. Keleher's education department spent around $13 million during her two years as secretary. Another $2.5 million was spent by the insurance administration when Ávila-Marrero led the agency.
Officials said Velázques Piñol illegally used federal money to pay for lobbying, and improperly used contacts in the education and health insurance agencies to win contracts. Ponce-Mendoza worked as Keleher's assistant; both her and her sister were friends with the former secretary.
Keleher is accused of steering contracts toward her friends without going through regular procedures.
"It's a shame because there is a lot to do for Puerto Rico and the people accused here profited from this, they sought to benefit their own personal interests and did not think they could help or that they were in a position to help Puerto Rico," said Rosa Emilia Rodriguez, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico. "It's embarrassing."
Officials said there was no evidence that Keleher or Ávila-Marrero profited from the scheme. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello was not involved in the investigation.
He was returning from vacation in Europe to meet with lawmakers about the investigation.
In a tweet, he said the "allegations against the people arrested today are a shame."
Keleher's tenure as the island territory's education secretary was marred by criticism over her proposed expansion of charter schools and the closing of hundreds of schools after Hurricane Maria.
The island has been plagued by allegations of corrupt officials misusing funds in recent years.
"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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.