Former Fall River mayor Jasiel F. Correia II betrayed his constituents by extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from four marijuana vendors seeking to open dispensaries in the city, forced his chief of staff to give him half her salary, and stole more than $230,000 from investors in a tech startup he created, a prosecutor told jurors during opening statements Monday in Correia’s federal corruption trial.
“This is a case about lying, cheating, stealing, and shakedowns, and the man behind it all is seated right there,” said Assistant US Attorney Zachary Hafer, pointing toward Correia, 29, who stood feet away in a courtroom in US District Court in Boston that has been reconfigured to meet social distancing and safety guidelines required during the pandemic.
But Correia’s attorney, Kevin Reddington, told jurors Correia is not guilty of any of the 24 counts he faces and portrayed him as a victim of overzealous investigators and cooperating witnesses who are lying. He described Correia as a creative entrepreneur and passionate advocate for the city who sparked controversy when at age 23 he defeated an incumbent in 2015 to become the city’s youngest mayor.
“In politics, it can be brutal,” Reddington told jurors. “You make enemies.”
Correia is charged with extortion conspiracy, extortion aiding and abetting, bribery, tax evasion, and lying to investigators. The prosecutor told jurors there are two parts to the case, one involving an alleged scheme by Correia to defraud people who invested in SnoOwl, a smartphone app he and two friends formed in 2013 while he was attending Providence College. The second part involves the alleged shakedown of marijuana vendors from 2016 to 2019, when Correia was voted out of office following his indictment.
The prosecutor told jurors that Correia campaigned on hope and honesty, but months after taking office in January 2016 “he started cashing in” by extorting payments from marijuana vendors.
After recreational marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2016, it created fierce competition for licenses to open lucrative dispensaries. The state required applicants to obtain a letter of “non-opposition” from the head of local government, verifying that their proposed dispensaries were in compliance with zoning laws. In Fall River, that meant Correia. The government will present evidence that Correia told four marijuana vendors they had to pay for non-opposition letters, and demanded up to $250,000 in some cases, Hafer said.
“There was a price to do business in Fall River, a price set by that man,” Hafer told jurors, again pointing at Correia, who listened intently.
On July 14, 2016, Correia issued a non-opposition letter to one marijuana vendor, David Brayton, principal of Xiphias Wellness, now operating as Nature’s Medicine, according to Hafer. That same day Brayton hand-delivered a check for $100,000 to a “middleman,” Antonio Costa, indicating on the check that it was for property management fees and a retainer, he said.
“It was a payoff,” Hafer told jurors. “Money for official action. This for that. Quid pro quo.”
Four marijuana vendors, who were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony, will testify they were extorted by Correia, Hafer said.
Reddington urged jurors to question the credibility of the marijuana vendors, Costa, and two other middlemen who claim they delivered payments to Correia, noting that they all received immunity or deals for leniency. He suggested it was preposterous that Correia would have been meeting in cars and sheds to accept payments, as the government alleges, at the same time that he was under investigation by the FBI and two other agencies for his management of SnoOwl.
“You’re going to hear evidence that everybody knew the feds were in Fall River,” Reddington said. “They practically occupied City Hall.”
Prosecutors allege that Correia used some of the money from marijuana vendors to pay legal bills because he was already under investigation.
Correia is accused of getting seven people to invest in SnoOwl, telling them that none of them would draw salaries, and then stealing money from the company’s account to put a $10,000 down payment on a Mercedes, buy jewelry, clothes, pay for trips and entertainment, and to pay his student loans and car payment. Hafer told jurors that Correia used some of the money to take his girlfriend on a helicopter tour of the Newport mansions. He also donated $3,000 in his own name to the Fall River Children’s Aquarium, which later named a room after him, Hafer said.
But Reddington told jurors, “There was no intent to defraud. There was no intent to steal. He above anybody wanted to see this business a success.”
He said Correia worked 24/7 on SnoOwl, never claimed he wouldn’t draw a salary, and didn’t tried to hide anything when he withdrew money from the company’s account for his personal use. He said SnoOwl was successful because it became available for purchase through Apple.
Five witnesses testified Monday, including David Cabeceiras, a Fall River orthodontist who invested $145,000 in SnoOwl and said he trusted Correia, who had been friends with his son since high school.
When Assistant US Attorney David Tobin asked Cabeceiras whether he knew Correira had used some of his money to put a $10,000 down payment on a Mercedes, buy $700 shoes for his girlfriend, and spend $300 on cologne, Cabeceiras said he did not.
Cabeceiras said he made 19 checks out to Correia, who kept asking for more. In 2014, he said he agreed to write another check for $6,000 because Correia told him another investor had backed out and he needed more funds to get the app going. He said Correia sounded “nervous” during their phone call.
“Usually he was pretty upbeat and positive,” Cabeceiras said. “But there was a sense of fear that if he didn’t get any more money that the app would die. He said I was like the last-resort guy.”
Fourteen jurors, including two alternates, were sworn in Monday for the trial that is being watched by the public on Zoom, and held in a courtroom where there’s a heavy focus on safety protocols. Only 26 people are allowed in the courtroom, where everyone is required to wear masks — except witnesses, while testifying in a witness box shield by plexiglass. While some jurors are seated in the jury box, others are seated inside the “well” of the courtroom in an area previously reserved for lawyers. Prosecutors, the defense, Correia, Correia’s mother and girlfriend, and one member of the media are seated in the spectator section.
“It’s terribly important to all of us to get back to the work the country does... to see that justice is done,” US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock told jurors as he described the COVID-19 protocols for the trial, which is expected to last several weeks.