FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — The indictment of Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia on Friday for allegedly taking bribes to help marijuana companies set up shop in the city has raised new questions about the industry’s future there.
Prosecutors say Correia issued letters of non-opposition to four marijuana vendors — a requirement to do business in the city — in exchange for bribes. They say he often pressured the vendors for cash by claiming he would only offer five or six letters, though so far he has issued 14.
Correia pleaded not guilty on Friday and said he will fight the charges. Voters will decide the 27-year-old Democrat’s political future in a preliminary election for mayor on Sept. 17; he already managed to survive a recall election back in March.
The indictment does not spell out which marijuana companies are tied to which of the alleged bribes, though it does provide some clues.
The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, the state body set up to manage marijuana legalization, currently lists five enterprises that are somewhere in the process of getting a license for Fall River.
Only one, Northeast Alternatives Inc., is currently operating. Three others — Greener Leaf Inc., Hope Heal Health Inc. and Nature’s Remedies — have a provisional license. The fifth, The Haven Center Inc., is listed as having submitted an application.
“The Cannabis Control Commission is reviewing the U.S. attorney’s indictment against the mayor of Fall River and will monitor any ongoing investigation to protect the integrity of the Commonwealth’s licensing process,” Maryalice Gill, a spokesperson for the commission, told WPRI 12 in an email.
Gill noted that the commission’s regulations call for “mandatory disqualifications of applicants and licensees that have any outstanding or unresolved criminal proceeding that may result in a felony conviction.”
She added, “The commission has the authority to exercise its discretion to make a determination regarding an applicant’s suitability for licensure.”
Gov. Charlie Baker did not respond to a request for comment Friday about the situation in Fall River or what steps should be taken by the cannabis agency. But at a news conference unveiling the charges against Correia, the state’s inspector general said the allegations should cause Massachusetts officials to take a closer look at the rules around marijuana licensing.
The indictment breaks the marijuana-related bribes into four episodes, one in 2016 and three last year, all centered around letters of non-opposition for marijuana licensing. Here is what prosecutors say happened.
July 14, 2016 Letter: Around June 2016, according to the indictment, a middleman introduced a marijuana entrepreneur to one of Correia’s aides. The pair met at a Dunkin Donuts to discuss the process.
Correia eventually told the middleman he wanted $250,000 in exchange for providing the letter, describing that as what “other groups had paid,” the indictment says. The marijuana entrepreneur agreed to pay the mayor $100,000 up front and $150,000 after the business had positive cash flow, plus 2% of sales.
On July 14, 2016, the entrepreneur gave the middleman a check for $100,000 with the false memo line “Property Management Fees/Retainer,” according to prosecutors. After the middleman informed Correia of the payment, the mayor issued the letter of non-opposition.
“In the ensuing weeks, Correia drove to Middleman #1’s residence approximately four or five times, typically in his official Fall River vehicle, and picked up approximately $10,000 to $20,000 in cash each time as his cut of the bribe,” the indictment says.
In total, Correia got about $70,000, while the middleman got $30,000, prosecutors say. Correia was supposed to get all of the other $150,000.
July 2, 2018 Letter: The indictment starts its description of this episode by saying, “When [Marijuana] Vendor #2 first approached Fall River, his calls were unreturned.”
Around May 2018, the same middleman who’d worked on the July 2016 bribe told this second marijuana entrepreneur he was close to Correia and “would speak to him” on the individual’s behalf, according to prosecutors.
The following month, the indictment says, Correia directed the middleman to demand $250,000 for the letter of non-opposition. The middleman and the second marijuana entrepreneur eventually negotiated that down to $150,000.
Court documents go on to allege the mayor and the second marijuana entrepreneur met on June 20, 2018, for dinner at Ocean Prime in Boston followed by a visit to a cigar bar in the North End. Correia told him he would only approve five or six marijuana shops for Fall River and “confirmed” the individual “was willing to pay a bribe.”
Correia issued the vendor a non-opposition letter on July 2. Around the same time, the entrepreneur gave the middleman an envelope containing about $25,000 as a down payment on the bribe. “The cash had recently been withdrawn from the bank, and was comprised entirely of $100 bills,” the indictment says.
Correia’s aide told the middleman “to put the envelope in a shed” behind the aide’s Fall River home, and the middleman did so on July 7. But the indictment says the aide later returned the money to the middleman, explaining that Correia thought the cash was “Fed money.”
At that point, the aide and the middleman agreed that the middleman would sell marijuana to generate the cash for Correia’s bribe. During the summer of 2018, prosecutors say the second marijuana entrepreneur made additional payments on the $150,000 bribe in the form of cash and 12 to 15 pounds of pot.
By late July, however, only about $50,000 to $67,550 of the bribe had been paid, so prosecutors say Correia and his aide began to pressure the entrepreneur for the rest. The mayor and the entrepreneur met at a Providence cigar bar on Sept. 7 so Correia could express his frustration directly.
The middleman sent a text on Oct. 13 to the entrepreneur at the direction of Correia’s aide saying, “just don’t screw the kid he did what he had to do for you,” referring to the non-opposition letter.
The indictment concludes the story by saying the second marijuana entrepreneur gave the middleman an additional $10,000 cash payment toward the bribe at a Cumberland Farms in Fall River this past March — the same month Fall River voters put Correia back in office in a recall election.
Aug. 17, 2018 Letter: A review of various court documents tied to the Correia case shows this episode involves a Westport man named David Hebert — who has already reached a plea agreement with prosecutors — acting as a middleman for Correia.
On July 11, 2018, Hebert offered to speak with Correia on behalf of a third marijuana entrepreneur. Later that month, the entrepreneur confirmed during a meeting with Corriea at City Hall that he would pay a $25,000 bribe to the mayor in exchange for a letter of non-opposition.
Hebert and the entrepreneur then met at a Fall River cigar shop, where they agreed the bribe would be concealed as “small donations” made by the entrepreneur’s friends and family to Correia’s campaign fund.
Later, however, Hebert told the third marijuana entrepreneur that non-opposition letters were “going for at least $100,000” and he would need to pay more. So the entrepreneur agreed to forgive a roughly $61,000 mortgage that Hebert had through the entrepreneur’s brother.
The third marijuana entrepreneur gave Correia $5,000 to $6,000 more in cash, prosecutors say. The entrepreneur needed two letters of non-opposition, and Hebert allegedly delivered them Aug. 21 at a cigar shop.
The campaign donations were made in late August, but the wife of the third marijuana entrepreneur was fined $5,000 for illegal donations to Correia this past March. The indictment says Correia ran into the wife this past July and apologized “for all the stuff that went down with the campaign finance.”
While the indictment does not name the wife, state records show a Rehoboth woman named Dina Pichette was fined $5,000 for illegal donations to Correia this past spring. The Herald News has reported that a Matt Pichette received a letter of non-opposition from Corriea for his companies in August 2018.
July 5, 2018 Letter: The indictment’s final marijuana bribery episode also dates to last summer.
In June 2018, the indictment says Correia and his chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, met at City Hall with a fourth marijuana entrepreneur and said the city would issue no more letters of non-opposition. (Andrade was also charged on Friday.)
“Several days later, Correia and Andrade showed up unannounced at MJ Vendor #4’s business in Fall River,” the indictment states. The entrepreneur was not there, so they left and returned later in the day. At that point the three met upstairs at the business, where prosecutors say Correia told the vendor he would sign a letter of non-opposition in exchange for $250,000.
The indictment says the fourth marijuana entrepreneur reacted “with visible nervousness,” and when Correia was asked why the amount was so high, the mayor said it was for his legal fees. They agreed on a $125,000 bribe, later upped to $150,000.
“You’re family now,” Andrade allegedly told the fourth marijuana entrepreneur as she and the mayor left.
Correia later offered to reduce the entrepreneur’s required annual payment to the city from $50,000 to $25,000 if he could have the additional $25,000, which was agreed. The bribe was to be paid as $75,000 cash up front and $75,000 more after the state issued a provisional license.
On July 5, the indictment says, Correia went to the fourth marijuana entrepreneur’s business in his official city vehicle and instructed the individual to get inside. The entrepreneur gave Correia the $75,000 in cash “in a contractor’s clipboard,” and Correia handed over the valuable letter.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Tim White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook
Darren Soens contributed to this report.