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How a Penn grad and Delco native is tied to Puerto Rico turmoil

Julia Keleher was arrested following her resignation as Puerto Rico's education secretary, contributing to the turmoil on the island.

Artists Residente and Bad Bunny joined a march along F.D. Roosevelt Avenue a day after Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo "Ricky" Antonio Rossello Nevares announced he will step down effective Aug. 2.
Artists Residente and Bad Bunny joined a march along F.D. Roosevelt Avenue a day after Puerto Rico's governor Ricardo "Ricky" Antonio Rossello Nevares announced he will step down effective Aug. 2.Read morePedro Portal / MCT

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's resignation announcement late Wednesday followed a series of large protests on the island over controversial and vulgar text messages by him being leaked.

Prior to the leak, the island’s political sphere was already in turmoil after two of Rosselló's former cabinet members — Education Secretary Julia Keleher and Chief of Health Insurance Administration Ángela Ávila-Marrero — were arrested by the FBI on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, theft of government funds, and money laundering.

Keleher has significant ties to the Philadelphia area. Here’s a look at her local connections and her role in recent news in Puerto Rico.

Who is Julia Keleher?

Keleher, a Philadelphia-area native, became Puerto Rico’s education secretary and had a sometimes-stormy tenure before resigning a few months before her arrest.

Keleher grew up in Delaware County and attended Cardinal O’Hara High School, the University of Pennsylvania as an undergrad, and the University of Delaware for her doctorate in education, according to the Pennsylvania Gazette, Penn’s alumni magazine. In a 2018 interview with the Gazette, she said her Penn education gave her "excellent preparation at both levels,” and the lesson that “you’ve got to fight your way through; you’ve got to be tough; and you’ve got to work hard.”

For a large part of the early 2000s, she worked for the Red Clay School District in Wilmington, before starting her own company in 2009.

Because Keleher was an outsider to the Puerto Rican government, there was some outrage when she became education secretary in 2017.

When did it all go downhill for her?

Keleher resigned in April. Among the controversies during her tenure, she closed nearly a quarter of Puerto Rico’s public schools following Hurricane María. She also opened the first charter school on the island.

But the worst was to come. On July 10, she was arrested with five others on numerous charges for allegedly sending more than $15 million in federal education funds to unqualified contractors for her personal gain.

“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 taxpayers, it victimizes those citizens and students that are in need of educational assistance,” said Neil Sanchez, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General’s Southern Region, according to CBS News.

At the time, officials said Rosselló was not involved in the investigation.

This contributed to the start of protests that have made headlines for more than a week and ended in the governor’s resignation.

» READ MORE: Philly Puerto Ricans rally to demand Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's resignation after leaked derogatory messages, corruption scandals

What prompted the massive protests in Puerto Rico?

Keleher and Ávila-Marrero are accused of funneling government funds into businesses to which they had personal ties.

The allegations of government corruption sparked feelings of neglect by the leadership in Puerto Rico’s citizens — feelings partially stemming from the aftermath of María, which devastated the island in September 2017.

The arrests were followed by the leaked messages from a private chat group in which the governor and other staffers made crude and insulting comments, including misogynistic, racist, and homophobic statements.

The corruption led more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans to rally in the streets, and to protests on the U.S. mainland, all calling for the governor’s resignation.

In Philly, hundreds rallied in 100-degree heat. They brought banners and chanted calls for Rosselló's resignation after reading the offensive messages about female politicians, victims of María, and pop star Ricky Martin.

In a word, #RickyRenuncia.

» READ MORE: Why Puerto Ricans like me will continue standing against corrupt politicians | Opinion