By Mark Keierleber
Just four days after her abrupt resignation as Puerto Rico’s education secretary, Julia Keleher went to Yale University to deliver a highly charged and unusual speech. The subject was leadership, an apt one for an education management conference, but it was also Keleher’s own story — a defiant and sometimes bitter narrative of pushing for change against the island’s culture of corruption.
Before she became secretary, Keleher told the hundreds of people assembled at New Haven’s Omni Hotel in April, getting things done in Puerto Rico’s tangled education system amounted to “basically political favoritism.”
“Who you knew determined what job you had, irrespective of your experience or your capacity to perform,” she said. Ending that practice “won me armies of people that literally would have been happy to take my head off.”
But even then, Keleher was the target of a large-scale corruption probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that threatens to upend that portrayal.
In July, she and five others were indicted as part of an alleged conspiracy to illegally direct more than $15 million in federal funds to organizations with personal and political connections. The charges helped bring down the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who, although not implicated in the case, had appointed Keleher to revolutionize the island’s education system in 2016. Keleher and her co-defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges, and her attorney stressed that she is not accused of benefiting financially from the scheme.
At the Yale event, Keleher, 44, dismissed a reporter’s question about rumors of federal investigations then swirling around her departure. “I have no comment on the investigations,” she said. “Investigations have been happening at the Department of Education since forever.”
What may have sounded like a brush-off hinted at a deeper irony. Years before becoming education secretary, Keleher worked on a U.S. Department of Education team tasked with fixing compliance problems involving waste, fraud and mismanagement of federal funds in Puerto Rico’s school system — issues that had led to the conviction of another former education secretary nearly two decades earlier.
Her role on the other side of the island’s federal education probes is one of many lingering riddles to have emerged since her arrest. Friends and former colleagues describe Keleher as a fierce advocate known for 2 a.m. emails and sometimes little sympathy for those lacking her single-minded work ethic. But they also recall her as someone too smart to cut corners and too tough to get ensnared in someone else’s scheme.
“She just wants to cut through all of the crap, essentially, to get something done,” said Ellen Forte, CEO and chief scientist at edCount, an education consulting firm. The two met while working to correct compliance issues on the island — meetings that left Forte feeling that Keleher would never “engage in anything that wasn’t above board.”
“It’s so bizarre,” she said. Speaking of Keleher’s monitoring duties on the island, she said, “It’s surreal in a way that someone who was doing this is suddenly charged with being the criminal.”