FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia was arrested for the second time in less than a year on Friday morning, accused by federal prosecutors of trying to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from marijuana vendors.
“He has essentially run that town as a pay-to-play institution,” Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters, adding that the investigation is not over.
- IN-DEPTH: Here’s how the bribes were allegedly paid to the mayor »
- REACTION: City councilor calls Correia arrest “nightmare” for city »
“If the allegations in today’s indictment are true, Mayor Correia has engaged in an outrageous, brazen campaign of corruption which turned his job into a personal ATM,” Lelling said.
Neighbors spotted FBI and other agents taking Correia, 27, into custody on Peckham Street early Friday morning. He pleaded not guilty on Friday afternoon at federal court in Boston — the same place he pleaded not guilty last October when he was originally indicted for allegedly defrauding investors in his startup company, SnoOwl.
Correia entered and exited the courtroom in handcuffs, wearing navy dress pants, a white dress shirt and no jacket. He was given until Tuesday to post a $25,000 bond in order to be released.
Other release conditions set at the request of prosecutors include restricting the mayor’s travel to Massachusetts and Rhode Island, rather than the entire continental United States as previously allowed, and barring contact with victims or witnesses in the case.
Outside of court, Correia was defiant. His attorney, Kevin Reddington, said the mayor will not accept a plea deal and plans to go to trial.
Correia’s arrest comes less than two weeks before Fall River voters are slated to decide his political future in the Sept. 17 preliminary election for mayor. A majority of city voters tried to remove him in a March recall election, but he won the office back on the same ballot thanks to a quirk in the city charter.
Reddington questioned the timing of the mayor’s arrest, coming so close to the election.
Correia, a Democrat, was first elected in 2015 at the age of just 23. “Six months after being sworn in as mayor, he sold his office,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office.
‘A perfect storm of corruption’
The newly unsealed 40-page indictment portrays a pervasive culture of bribery, extortion and intimidation at Government Center under Correia. Federal investigators laid out the new charges against the mayor — who has long ignored calls to resign — at an 11 a.m. news conference in Boston.
Central to the case is the mayor’s power over marijuana enterprises, allegedly trading bribes in exchange for providing the official “letter of non-opposition” required under Massachusetts law to open a pot shop in the city.
Correia has issued at least 14 non-opposition letters so far — including two to his girlfriend’s brother — and in August vetoed a council ordinance that would have limited the number of marijuana licenses in Fall River.
“In many ways it’s a perfect storm of corruption — a highly competitive industry and a mayor who was solely responsible for approving non-opposition letters in the city,” said Bonavolonta.
Investigators say Correia collected some of the bribes himself in his city vehicle, while in other cases he used middlemen. One bribe was paid in the form of 12 to 15 pounds of marijuana, according to the indictment, which says a middleman agreed to sell the pot to generate cash to pay Correia. The mayor allegedly told one vendor he needed the money to pay his legal fees.
Other alleged bribes ranged from $100,000 to $250,000 in cash as well as campaign donations and mortgage discharges. In one case, the mayor is accused of offering to reduce a marijuana company’s payments to the city in exchange for $25,000. The U.S. attorney’s office said Correia was slated to receive more than $600,000 in total.
Massachusetts’ inspector general, Glenn Cunha, suggested the indictment should be a wakeup call to state officials about the need for more safeguards around the fast-growing legal marijuana trade there.
Spokespersons for Gov. Charlie Baker and the Cannabis Control Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Chief of staff also charged
Four others are charged in the case, including Genoveva Andrade, the mayor’s 48-year-old former chief of staff, who was also arrested Friday for extortion, bribery and lying to investigators. The indictment alleges Correia demanded that Andrade “give him half her salary” in exchange for “allowing her to keep her job.”
The indictment says Andrade once told a marijuana vendor, “you want to hear something even more [expletive] up … I have to give [Correia] half of my salary.” She told someone identified as a middleman that Correia has a safe with hundreds of thousands of dollars received from bribes, and told another he had “lots of sleazy things” going on.
Andrade was released Friday afternoon after an initial appearance in federal court in Boston. Her travel was also restricted to Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
In addition to the other allegations, the indictment accuses Correia of “extorting a building owner for cash and a Rolex watch in exchange for activating the water supply to a commercial building.”
Court documents show three co-conspirators charged in the Correia case have already reached plea agreements with prosecutors: Antonio Costa, 51, of Fall River; Hildegar Camara, 58, of Fall River; and David Hebert, 54, of Westport. Their court dates have not been set. (Camara, the brother of a city councilor, was appointed by Correia to run a job training program.)
Correia was arrested last October on federal fraud charges after years of rumors about an investigation involving him. Prosecutors alleged that he misused $231,000 of the $363,000 he accepted from seven investors in SnoOwl while misleading them about the business.
At least check, the mayor’s trial had been scheduled to begin Feb. 24.
Meanwhile, Friday’s arrest will only continue a long period of political turmoil in the city of 89,000 along Mount Hope Bay.
Correia won the mayor’s office in 2015 by defeating former Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter. Sutter in turn had become mayor only the previous December in a special election after voters removed incumbent Will Flanagan – who lost in part because of an incident in which he allegedly flashed a gun at Correia, then a freshman councilman, to intimidate him.
Many local leaders and voted were stunned by Correia’s second arrest. “This is an unfortunate day for the residents and tax payers of Fall River,” said City Council President Cliff Ponte. “Fall River is a resilient community that will get through this tough time.”
Correia, a Providence College graduate, has been campaigning for re-election in recent weeks against two opponents, Paul Coogan and Erica Scott-Pacheco. The three participated in a debate just last night.
In a statement Friday, Scott-Pacheco described herself as “shocked” by Correia’s alleged use of city resources for corrupt ends. “Correia showed us once that he seeks to defraud, steal and lie to amass his fortune,” she said. “Today, he again showed us there is no end to what he will do to fulfill his selfish desires.”