By Tatiana Díaz Ramos, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Since Mayda Velasco Bonilla became chairwoman of the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Governing Board (JG, in Spanish) in August 2021, the members have never voted to approve the contracts that add up to $1.2 million so far this fiscal year to cover the operations of the Office of Institutional Transformation (OTI, in Spanish), in charge of implementing the institution’s Fiscal Plan.
The JG’s regulations establish that said contracts must be approved by its members, who were not consulted about the selection of the External Collaborators Committee members that evaluate the operations of the Medical Sciences Campus (RCM, in Spanish).
The Committee was created to “identify deficiencies and areas of opportunity in the RCM,” as stated in a contract between the Governing Board and Cedrela Consulting Group, a company that would analyze the Committee members’ recommendations.
Cedrela and Bluhaus Capital were the first companies to benefit from OTI contracts. Before being hired by the JG for $350,000, Bluhaus had contracts with the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF, in Spanish) to develop the UPR’s Fiscal Plan and structural reforms, while the JG contracted Cedrela for $50,400 to advise in managing projects that could affect the Plan.
The members of the External Collaborators Committee were chosen by Velasco Bonilla, who informed the JG about the only two in-person meetings that the group had had, which have cost the UPR $60,884.
“At the meeting held February 24, President Mayda Velasco shared an oral and visual presentation with the members of the External Collaborators Committee’s Board, a copy of which has not been sent to us. Just the attendance list for the last in-person meeting of the Committee members was shared. The authorization of the expenses for the meetings was approved by both the OTI and Dr. Velasco,” the two faculty and JG student representatives, Margarita Villamil, Carlos Galiano and Eliud Rivas, confirmed to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).
The representatives also requested “reports, minutes, records and any other procedure related to the meetings held by the OTI and this group of evaluators, which we have been told are private or confidential.”
Velasco Bonilla, who is part of the Committee, told El Nuevo Día that the regulations to authorize the meeting expenses were not followed while saying that the reason for not identifying the group members was that no one intervenes in their work.
Who Are the External Collaborators Committee Members?
Of the 17 people who comprise the Committee, five sit on the Board of Directors of a nonprofit organization that Velasco Bonilla registered in Puerto Rico eight years ago, originally called the Institute of Cosmology and Physics of the Americas, and whose name changed two years later to the School of Fundamental and Interdisciplinary Physics of the Americas (COFI, in Spanish). Another member worked with her at Northwestern University in Illinois, where she is a graduate and professor.
Velasco did not respond to a request for an interview, but three members of the Committee, Franklin Carrero Martínez, Gladys Escalona de Motta and José Huerta Rebozo, spoke with the CPI about the work they have been doing there.
Carrero Martínez, on the scope of the Committee’s analysis of the RCM’s operations, said: “We’re focusing on areas of service, research, teaching and administration. We’re gathering information to understand the services that the RCM offers … primarily to students (classroom and clinics) and patients (clinics); there are also responsibilities with accrediting agencies and federal government agencies. We hope to make recommendations on opportunities and areas in which improvements can be made, always considering the needs of the accreditations and keeping in mind the populations that the Campus serves.”
As an example of the opportunities for the Campus, Carrero Martínez mentioned the investment in research for cancer prevention and treatment. He also mentioned the proposal by President Biden’s administration to create an Agency for Advanced Research Projects in Health (ARPA-H).
Meanwhile, Escalona, said that after disclosure of the expenses of the in-person meetings that the Committee held in a hotel in February, “I would have expected that they would have called us to a Zoom meeting considering all these misunderstandings that have arisen regarding the Committee’s work, but at least I haven’t been informed about an upcoming meeting.”
The former rector of the Río Piedras Campus believes that the “misunderstanding” about the cost of the meetings is because “once they give things a headline, then nobody thinks. It’s a matter of keeping up the headline, and someone gave it the title of frivolous expenses [for meeting costs] and you no longer think or look for more explanations, just give it that title. I’m very worried that we don’t understand the true nature of the work. Because we’ve had, I don’t remember the exact number now, say between eight and 10 meetings of four to three hours each, with each one of those specialists, who are deans, program directors, experts in their areas [of the Medical Sciences Campus], who join in at that time of the night after work. Let’s say that we’ve done it 10 times, those are hours that no one is paying for.”
She also mentioned that subgroups were created within the Committee to work on specific areas. In her case, she’s part of the Administration subgroup. Although she assured that so far the work has focused on requesting information from deans, administrators, the former rector, Wanda Maldonado, and the current rector, Ilka Ríos, she does not recall if they have been presented with the details of the administrative and academic transformation plans that the Medical Sciences Campus’ Governing Board approved in 2016.
Huerta Rebozo said the Committee’s focus “is to evaluate all funding opportunities, considering the projections we have in terms of demographics in Puerto Rico … and the solid competition we’re getting from private medical schools. I don’t think there’s any interest in privatizing any [RCM] service. At least from my point of view, that is not being considered. We believe that the University should be the public university of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. We [the Committee members] are all born from the university, I’m a product of the Medical Sciences Campus.”
Among the revenue-generating ideas that have been discussed, he emphasized attracting “the children of Puerto Ricans who have moved to the United States to come and study at the University of Puerto Rico; that the diaspora see Puerto Rico as their first option.”
More Than $13 Million Just to Implement the Fiscal Plan
The decrease in Puerto Rico’s student population has been alleged as a justification for the budget cuts the public university has suffered since at least 2017. However, these cuts are not proportional to the number of students that the UPR continues to attract. The General Fund allocation suffered a 48 percent reduction between 2017 and 2022 while student enrollment decreased by 23 percent, according to the Center for a New Economy. As of 2023, the General Fund’s allocation to the UPR was set at $500 million.
The UPR’s updated Fiscal Plan establishes that as of fiscal year 2021, $13.3 million of the institution’s budget are reserved for the OTI’s operations over three years, an office to which the External Collaborators Committee members respond.
From this office, directed by the Governing Board’s executive secretary, Magdalisse Ramos Costa, from 2019 to 2021, more than $2 million in contracts for the implementation of the Fiscal Plan have already been awarded to Bluhaus Capital LLC, Team One Consulting Group, Cedrela Consulting Group LLC and Milagros Gavilán Pérez.
Milagros Gavilán Pérez
On December 23, 2021, Velasco Bonilla signed a six-month professional services contract with Gavilán Pérez for $90,000, “to direct all work related to the initiative for the independent external evaluation of the Medical Sciences Campus.”
Gavilán Pérez lives in Virginia, is an attorney and wife of PNP’s lobbyist and former chief of staff for Resident Commissioners Luis Fortuño and Jennifer González, Luis Bacó Sánchez. A week after signing her contract, she held a meeting with the rector of the RCM, Ilka Ríos, together with her husband and the President of the JG, according to a presentation by Ríos to the Academic Senate.
The services for which she was hired include planning and supervising the independent external evaluation of the RCM and the team in charge of it, coordinating the meetings between the Collaborators Committee, the OTI, and the Special Committee to Restructure the JG, as well as the writing and editing of the final independent external evaluation report that must be delivered by the end of 2022.
Since 2018, Gavilán Pérez has had contracts for $156,000 with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington D.C.
Team One Consulting Group
Antonio Pabón Batlle’s company signed a professional service contract with Velasco Bonilla in November 2021 for $75,000. Team One’s duties include “administrative consulting to support the Administrative Transformation initiative included in the Office of Institutional Transformation’s work plan” and “evaluate administrative processes at the University of Puerto Rico and any of its units with the goal of achieving shared service structures in certain administrative and fiscal areas.”
One month after the contract was signed, the JG issued a certification authorizing a pilot plan for shared services among the Arecibo, Utuado and Aguadilla Campuses beginning in January 2022. “The Pilot Plan will be implemented in phases beginning with offices directly related to administrative operations,” the certification shows. The UPR has 11 campuses throughout the island.
The JG’s faculty and student representatives told the CPI that they have not received a progress report on this initiative, but they managed to approve a motion to have the Pilot Plan presented to members of the university community.
Bluhaus Capital LLC
Since 2019, the company directed by Alberto J. Toro Casellas has landed $1.6 million in contracts with the university’s Governing Board to offer financial advisory services, “supporting the UPR’s Fiscal Plan the Planning and Strategic Implementation of the Transformation” since “they have extensive experience in the government sector.”
Toro Casellas was manager of strategic planning for the office of the president of Santander Securities LLC and advisor to the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC, in Spanish). The company he directs has signed $9.7 million in contracts with the government, mainly with the UPR Governing Board and the AAFAF since 2016.
Cedrela Consulting Group LLC
Company chosen for “the assessment and analysis of the data generated” based on the External Collaborators Committee recommendations. It must also support the OTI in the “creation of a transformational roadmap for the Medical Sciences Campus.” It was previously hired to provide “professional consulting services for project management and data analysis to support financial, operational, and legal compliance with key initiatives that impact workstreams” of the UPR’s Fiscal Plan.
Cedrela was established by accountants David D. Lugo Hernández and Jorge Sánchez Rosa, and so far, it has $290,400 in contracts with the JG. Since 2017, the company has had contracts with other agencies such as the Port of Ponce Authority, the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO), the DDEC, Puerto Rico Treasury and the AAFAF, for a total of $7.5 million.