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Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher. (GFR Media)
Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher. (GFR Media)

The six defendants arrested on charges of steering federal funds to unqualified, politically connected contractors in the Department of Education and the Health Insurance Administration (PRHIA) requested Tuesday to transfer the case to another U.S. district where they believe they would have an impartial jury.

Attorneys of former Education Secretary Julia Keleher, former PRHIA Director Ángela Ávila, former advisor Alberto Velázquez and contractors Fernando Scherrer, Glenda Ponce and Mayra Ponce filed a joint motion in Federal Court arguing that the negative effects of adverse publicity affects their right to a fair trial.

A grand jury indicted them on July 9 on 32 charges of a “conspiracy to steal and convert federal funds involving fraudulently obtained contracts” from the Puerto Rico Department of Education and PRHIA; wire fraud; conspiracy to wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to money laundering conspiracy. They were arrested on July 10.

The motion, before the consideration of Judge Pedro Delgado Hernández, is based on the grounds of the highly negative publicity stemming from the indictment and the summer 2019 protests sparked by the case.  According to the motion, the “volume” of negative publicity along with “a charged political atmosphere”  have created a bias against the defendants.

The defendants also commissioned a study to Dr. Arthur Patterson of DecisionQuest, which found that two-thirds of the jury group in Puerto Rico believe the defendants are guilty. The study found that 68.8 percent of Puerto Ricans familiar with the case expressed there is a lot of anger or hostility in their community against the defendants, which partly leads to the fact that potential jurors see the defendants’ conduct as a negative effect on education and Medicare systems in Puerto Rico.

According to the indictment, both agencies' heads may have allegedly agreed to steer federal funds to unqualified, politically connected contractors without a RFP process. They may have also allowed Velázquez Piñol, who was not related to government duties, to influence the awarding of contracts and obtain an illegal 10 percent commission from the contracts granted through his influence.

On the other hand, according to the U.S. District Attorney’s Office, Glenda Ponce used her position as Keleher's special assistant to give her sister Mayra information and thus providing her a competitive advantage for the proposals. According to the indictment, through this process, Colón & Ponce obtained $ 95,000 in contracts.