The federal authorities in Puerto Rico unveiled a sprawling corruption investigation into high levels of the island’s government Wednesday, announcing arrests and criminal charges against six people, including two former agency directors.
The Justice Department accused Julia Keleher, the former education secretary, and Ángela Ávila Marrero, the former executive director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration, of unlawfully steering about US$15.5-million in federal contracts to politically connected consultants.
The others arrested were Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza, two sisters who worked as education contractors; Fernando Scherrer Caillet, an executive at the B.D.O. accounting firm; and Alberto Velázquez Piñol, a consultant. The two businessmen face charges of money laundering, among the most serious accusations laid out in the 32-count indictment.
Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez, the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico, said the men used their political influence to improperly obtain contracts, and then used that money for illegal lobbying.
Neither Keleher nor Ávila personally benefited from the scheme, Rodríguez said. Of the fraudulent contracts, about $13 million were funneled through the Education Department, she said, and about US$2.5-million through the Health Insurance Administration. Keleher was friends with the Ponce-Mendoza sisters; Glenda Ponce-Mendoza was her assistant.
Investigators found that government officials and employees used personal email and Telegram, a mobile encrypted messaging app, to conduct government business.
“This type of corruption is particularly egregious because it not only victimizes taxpayers, it victimizes those citizens and students that are in need of education assistance,” said Neil Sanchez, the special agent in charge of the Southern Region of the inspector general’s office at the U.S. Department of Education, which first flagged that something was amiss in Puerto Rico.
Keleher’s arrest was especially notable, following a tumultuous tenure in which she closed hundreds of public schools, citing Puerto Rico’s diminishing population and dwindling resources.
And the arrests come at a delicate time for Puerto Rico’s leaders, who are asking Congress — which earlier this year held up a national disaster aid package over a fight about how much to send to the island — to approve US$12-billion for the island’s Medicaid program, which faces a looming funding shortfall.
Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló said he would cut short a family vacation in France to hastily return to Puerto Rico.
“It is time to be present on the island and reiterate the message personally: the agenda of this Government does not stop, despite those who have incorrectly decided to treason the trust of the People,” Rosselló, a Democrat, said in a statement.
The investigation could renew criticism from President Donald Trump, the most prominent skeptic of sending aid to Puerto Rico, who has repeatedly cast the island’s leaders as incompetent.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee that has oversight of Puerto Rico, called on the governor to resign in the wake of the arrests.
Rodríguez, the prosecutor, said the governor was not involved in the investigation. She added that the investigation shows that the authorities are doing their job effectively.
“The message this sends is that the system does work,” Rodríguez said at a news conference in San Juan. But she lamented that many similar corruption arrests had been made in Puerto Rico over numerous administrations.
“It’s a shame that we see this type of scheme, one after another,” she said.
Just last month, Ávila traveled to Capitol Hill to warn that a shortfall in September risked the Medicaid health care coverage for about 1.5 million Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens. She resigned five days later, on June 25, after Rosselló’s chief of staff revealed that the governor had spoken to a federal grand jury that was investigating Velázquez, the consultant.
Velázquez was arrested on Wednesday in Greenwich, Connecticut. Keleher, who resigned from her position in April, was arrested in Washington. The other arrests took place in Puerto Rico.