BOSTON (WPRI) – The former mayor of Fall River “betrayed his constituents” when he allegedly defrauded investors, extorted marijuana vendors and made his chief of staff kick back her salary to him, a federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
“This is a case about lying, cheating, stealing and shakedowns,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Hafer said in his opening statement in the trial of Jasiel F. Correia II. “The man behind it all is seated right there.”
Hafer told the jurors the evidence set to be laid out over the next several weeks will show “there was a price to do business in Fall River,” the city where Correia was first elected mayor in 2015.
The 24 criminal counts against Correia are split into three parts, Hafer said. The first involve the alleged defrauding of investors in a now-defunct tech app called SnoOwl, which Correia started after he graduated from Providence College and began his political aspirations in Fall River with a run for City Council.
Correia, 29, is accused of spending the majority of investors’ money on a “lavish lifestyle,” according to prosecutors, such as adult entertainment, casinos, designer clothes and a Mercedes.
He even took his girlfriend on a helicopter tour of the Newport Mansions with the investors’ money, Hafer said Monday.
A staff member issued a warning in 2016 when reviewing the company’s books, according to an email displayed in court: “This is at best a horrible mistake, and at worse can be regarded as criminal if the funding gaps are not solved.”
The second part of the case deals with Correia’s power as mayor to approve or disapprove of marijuana shops opening in the city, shortly after cannabis was legalized recreationally in Massachusetts. He required prospective vendors to pay him bribes, Hafer alleged, in exchange for his signature on a required letter of non-opposition.
The third part of the trial involves his former chief of staff Genoveva Andrade, who has already pleaded guilty to her role in the alleged extortion scheme. Correia is accused of requiring Andrade to kick back half her salary to him in exchange for getting and keeping her job in City Hall.
In his own opening statement, Correia’s defense attorney sought to dismiss the claims that the former mayor defrauded his SnoOwl investors, portraying the lavish spending as Correia essentially taking a salary from the company.
“It’s his money, from his point of view,” defense attorney Kevin Reddington told the jury. “He’s working hard on this app.”
Reddington said once the accounting issues were flagged, Correia hired a law firm which rewrote the investor agreements full of “legal gobbledygook” that made clear the money couldn’t be spent on personal items. But at that point Correia, a “22-year-old kid,” as Reddington described him, had already spent the money.
“There was no intent to defraud, there was no intent to steal,” Reddington said. “He, above everybody, wanted to see this business as a success.”
On the alleged marijuana vendor extortion, Reddington denied there was any shakedown of prospective cannabis businesses.
He sought to pre-emptively cast doubt on the marijuana vendors, who have been given immunity in exchange for their testimony against Correia. The middlemen accused of delivering the bribes to Correia have also already pleaded guilty and also plan to testify against the former mayor.
“The government ran out of paper giving out their immunity agreements and plea agreements here,” Reddington said.
The prosecution called five witnesses Monday afternoon, starting with four men who were friends with Correia in high school or college. Their collective testimony laid out the story of Correia’s first website, FindIt, and eventual founding of the SnoOwl app.
The first witness, Alec Mendes, was Correia’s freshman roommate at Providence College and co-founded FindIt with him. Mendes eventually left the business when it was making little money, he testified, and he sold his half to Correia in 2011. (The tale included an anecdote about meeting the late Buddy Cianci at the Capital Grille in Providence to discuss the website. The meal was a large expense for the business, Mendes said.)
Prosecutors allege Correia has claimed he sold his first app for a large sum of money, helping him get investors on the second app.
Two other friends who helped launch SnoOwl in 2013 — Christopher Parayno and Christopher Mello — testified that they did not receive any salaries from the app, and were unaware that Correia was taking any of the investment money for personal spending.
Parayno — who later became Correia’s first chief of staff as mayor — said he and Correia went to Twin River Casino about once a month, and Correia at one point paid for Parayno’s airfare and hotel for a trip to Miami. Asked how Correia paid for it all, he said he assumed Correia was either using his $16,000 salary as a Fall River city councilor, or covering the costs “through the funds he made from selling the other application,” referring to FindIt.
Another college roommate, Alex Vlahos, testified he wrote the business plan for SnoOwl, which described FindIt as a precursor that failed because it could not be used on mobile devices. The business plan did not mention anything about the app being sold to another company.
The last witness of the day was Dr. David Cabeceiras, an orthodontist whose son was friends with Correia in high school. Cabeceiras first invested $50,000 in SnoOwl in exchange for a 5% equity stake, he testified, but ultimately continued to write checks to the company at Correia’s request, totalling $145,000.
“There was a sense of fear that if he didn’t get any more money that the app would just die,” Cabeceiras said.
Prosecutors asked if Cabeceiras knew Correia spent his money on a Mercedes, a birthday trip for his girlfriend and other personal expenses. Cabeceiras said he did not.
“Had you known that Jasiel Correia was going to use or spend a significant portion of your investment money on cologne, shoes, jewelry for his girlfriend and other personal events, would you have trusted him with $145,000?” asked David Tobin, another assistant U.S. attorney.
“No,” Cabeceiras replied.
Correia has maintained his innocence since his initial arrest back in 2018. He was arrested twice during his second term in office, and ultimately lost re-election for a third term in 2019.
Correia is one of about two dozen people inside the actual courtroom due to COVID-19 restrictions. He arrived at court Monday with his mother and fiancé, but his father was not permitted to join him in the courtroom because he may be called as a witness.
Jury selection took place over three days last week, with 14 jurors seated on Monday morning. The jury has 11 women and 3 men, according to the pool reporter in the courtroom. (12 will ultimately render the verdict, with two alternates.)
Check back for updates as the trial continues.