BOSTON (WPRI) — Natalie Cleveland was just 18 when she met Jasiel Correia while the two were interns on Capitol Hill in 2012, she told jurors Thursday.
The two were friends, then later had a three-and-a-half year relationship during which Correia bought her jewelry and designer clothes, and paid for expensive trips, plane tickets and stays at luxury hotels.
Prosecutors brought her through a lengthy list of tens of thousands of dollars worth of receipts, ranging from multiple stays at the $949-per-night InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., to a trip to Hawaii and a helicopter tour over Newport.
Gifts she received included Christian Louboutin shoes, Tiffany jewelry and a Kate Spade clutch. When Correia was living in his hometown of Fall River, he paid for her flights to Providence to visit, Cleveland said. The two stayed at luxury hotels in Providence and Newport.
Cleveland took the stand via Zoom on Thursday morning in the trial of the former Fall River mayor, who faces two dozen criminal counts and has pleaded not guilty. The transactions she reviewed and confirmed on the stand totaled more than $32,000 over two years.
Correia, who became a Fall River city councilor in 2014, was making only about $16,000 a year in that job. He paid for roughly 90% of their meals and trips, Cleveland testified, sometimes using cash on large transactions.
“How did you think he was affording these things?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Hafer, one of the prosecutors.
“My assumption was he was affording everything through the previous sale of an app that he had developed called the FindIt Network … while he was in undergrad,” Cleveland said. “My assumption was several hundred thousand dollars.”
The FindIt Network, according to earlier evidence and testimony in the trial, was a website Correia founded with his freshman-year roommate at Providence College that helped people find restaurant deals through Facebook. That roommate, Alec Mendes, said the website made little money, and a prosecutor has called the idea that he sold it for a large sum “malarkey.”
Instead, prosecutors claim Correia was paying for the lavish lifestyle with money he stole from investors in his new tech venture at the time, SnoOwl, another restaurant app. (A business plan for SnoOwl says the FindIt network’s fatal flaw was that it was not mobile-friendly.)
Multiple businessmen who testified earlier this week said they never would have invested in SnoOwl had they known Correia did not truly have financial success with his first website.
“I thought he was a boy wonder,” said Stephen Miller, an investor who testified he gave Correia $70,000 to invest in SnoOwl. “He had that first idea, he made a couple hundred thousand, now he has this new idea. I thought he was going to be the next greatest thing.”
But prosecutors claim Correia used money from Miller and numerous other investors to fund his lavish lifestyle. In addition to the gifts and trips for Cleveland, Correia is accused of using the stolen funds on a Mercedes Benz and on trips to strip clubs and casinos.
On cross-examination, Correia’s attorney Kevin Reddington questioned Cleveland about whether she knew Correia was working in the shoe department at Nordstrom in 2013 and 2014 while they were dating; she said her understanding was that he only worked there in college. (Correia graduated in 2013.)
Reddington has also described Correia’s spending of SnoOwl investor money as simply taking a salary from the business, which he was working hard to launch on the Apple App Store.
“He said he was not going to take a dime,” said Miller, who works in real estate in Warwick. “His payday was going to come at the end.”
Cleveland also testified that her understanding was that Correia wasn’t getting a salary from SnoOwl or his other venture, a business incubator in Fall River called 1Zero4.
Correia was elected mayor of Fall River in the 2015 municipal election, taking office in 2016. A man named Stafford Sheehan, the nephew of SnoOwl’s largest investor Dr. David Cabeceiras, joined the company and was considering taking over as CEO while Correia focused on running the city.
In emails shown to the jury on Wednesday, Sheehan expressed alarm about the lack of records of all the investments Correia had received.
“Right now, neither Nick nor I know where a substantial amount of investor money collected by SnoOwl has gone,” Sheehan wrote. “Furthermore, as I understand it, early on in the company you used a personal account to conduct company business (e.g. Jasiel Correia d.b.a. SnoOwl) after raising investment money. This is at best a horrible mistake, and at worst can be regarded as criminal if the funding gaps are not solved.”
On Thursday afternoon, the jurors heard from an accountant named Terrence Charest, who was hired in 2016 to help sort out of the SnoOwl books after Correia became mayor.
Charest — who was granted immunity from prosecutors for his testimony — said he was presented with thousands of Citizens Bank debit card transactions, and asked Correia to mark which were business expenses and which were personal so that Charest could amend Correia’s tax returns from 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Correia marked a trip with friends as a “tech conference,” prosecutors said, along with other personal expenses including a dozen transactions at Gulliver’s Tavern, the legal name for the Foxy Lady strip club in Providence.
Asked on the stand if he would have written off those expenses had he known it was a strip club, Charest said he would not have done so.
Reddington pressed Charest about that on cross-examination, pointing out that if clients had been brought to the club, it could indeed be a business expense. Charest agreed it could be written off by 50% in that case.
Charest said ultimately he never received most of the documentation he requested from SnoOwl, including a record of all the investments made into the company so he could reconcile the books.
In an undated memo shown to the jury, Charest wrote: “No summary of any findings, issues, conclusion or recommendations were made by our firm because the required documentation and records to perform the procedures could not be found which resulted in our being unable to complete the engagement.”
Testimony in the first week of the trial thus far has focused on the fraud allegations involving SnoOwl, but Correia is also accused of extorting bribes from marijuana vendors while mayor of Fall River, and of requiring his chief of staff Gen Andrade to kick back half her salary to him.
An IRS agent is expected to take the stand on Friday, and testimony regarding the alleged marijuana extortion is set to begin next week.