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Why Julia Keleher Doesn't Want Her Fraud Trial to Be in Puerto Rico

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UPDATED

Julia Keleher, the former education secretary of Puerto Rico who was arrested on fraud charges last summer, has claimed in court that the island's media environment and public awareness of her situation will make it impossible for her to get a fair shake in the U.S. territory.

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, the day before Thanksgiving to move the trial venue out of Puerto Rico, Keleher also cited marketing research and search results demonstrating that negative and crude portrayals of her are widespread, as well as study commissioned by her legal defense team showing that 85 percent of people eligible to be jurors were aware of the case, and 77 percent of those familiar with the case believe Keleher and other defendants in the case to be guilty.

"Without a doubt, this media frenzy, coupled with the fact that this case marked the end to a series of unfortunate government-related scandals, demonstrates that Keleher's right to a trial by fair and impartial jury has been severely compromised," the motion states. It also asks that the case be moved to a different court in the First Circuit

Keleher, who was Puerto Rico's education secretary from early 2017 to April of this year, was arrested in July and charged with improperly steering millions of dollars worth of Puerto Rico Department of Education contracts to consulting firms, including one run by close friends of hers. She and co-defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges. The charges do not contain allegations that Keleher personally benefitted from her actions. 


See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico's Schools Back on Track


In the motion, Keleher's team cites a torrent of online and other abuse directed at her after her arrest, as well as one instance of physical assault when she arrived on the island after news of her arrest broke (our highlights in yellow have been added to the original motion):

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In addition, Keleher argued in the motion that she "became the face of corruption in the Rossello administration." That's a reference to the fact that, just a few days after Keleher's arrest, text messages between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and top Puerto Rican officials were published in the media; in the messages, he and others made derogatory remarks about Puerto Ricans suffering after Hurricane Maria and others, including the president of the island's teachers' union.

The messages sparked enormous and intense protests on the island that eventually drove Rosselló from office in late July. Here's what Keleher's motion has to say about that (again, our highlights have been added to the motion):

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Before her resignation in April and her subsequent arrest, Keleher was already a polarizing figure in Puerto Rico because of her decisions to revamp her department, close hundreds of schools with relatively low enrollment, and her backing for new charter schools and vouchers. Supporters hailed her as a trailblazer who would help the system recover and improve after Maria. But critics said she massively disrupted schools and communities for little to no benefit.

Attorneys for Keleher said Thursday a judge has not issued an order yet on the motion to change venue. 

Photo: Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher works with her team in a makeshift office at the Convention Center of Puerto Rico in San Juan in October 2017 after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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