While under investigation by the FBI in 2018, then-mayor Jasiel F. Correia II of Fall River showed up at the home of a close friend and urged him to convince a marijuana vendor who was trying to open a dispensary in the city to donate $100,000 to his legal defense fund, according to court testimony Tuesday.
“He was very stressed out,” Hildegar Camara told jurors at Correia’s political corruption trial in Boston, adding that Correia was under investigation for a business startup he had cofounded before becoming mayor and owed about $460,000 in legal bills. Correia interrupted his family dinner and asked if they could talk privately.
Camara, an aide to Correia, said he had previously approached the mayor on behalf of a mutual friend, Tony Costa, who wanted Correia to provide a non-opposition letter to Brian Bairos, who had a marijuana cultivation business in Rhode Island and wanted to open a dispensary in Fall River. Correia had agreed to provide the letter, a requirement for state approval, but now wanted something in return, Camara said.
“He was trying to get them to donate to his legal defense fund,” said Camara, 60. He told jurors that Correia stood next to him as he called Costa and whispered to him, “Tell them it’s going to be $100,000.”
“Was this money you were trying to get legitimately?” asked Assistant US Attorney Zachary Hafer.
“I tried to keep it legitimate, but no,” Camara said.
Days later, Costa told him he had left something in the shed behind his house, Camara said. He called Correia, who waited in his basement while he fetched an envelope that had been tucked under a paint can and contained a stack of bills.
“I was spooked, I was nervous, I was worried,” Camara testified. He showed it to Correia, who seemed “nonchalant.”
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” he recalled warning the mayor. “If you take this or I take this we’re going to go to jail.”
Camara said he was suspicious that it was “Fed money” planted by investigators and dropped it back at Costa’s house after wiping the envelope and cash of fingerprints. He told jurors he believed Costa returned the cash to Bairos, but on Monday Costa testified that he was “playing both sides” and kept the cash.
Camara has pleaded guilty to six charges, including the extortion of Bairos and another marijuana vendor and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a recommendation of leniency.
Correia, 29, a Democrat, is accused of extorting $600,000 from marijuana vendors while he was mayor from 2016 to 2019. He is also accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who invested in SnoOwl, a smartphone app he helped create in 2013 while he was attending Providence College. He is charged with extortion conspiracy, extortion aiding and abetting, bribery, tax evasion, and lying to investigators. He has pleaded not guilty.
Earlier Tuesday, Bairos, 42, testified that he met with Correia at City Hall to pitch his plans for a dispensary but became frustrated when he never heard back. He reached out to Costa because he heard he had a good relationship with the mayor.
Costa said he could help him get a non-opposition letter from the mayor in exchange for a $250,000 bribe, Bairos testified. Bairos said he told Costa “he was crazy” and negotiated it down to $150,000.
“Why were you willing to pay a bribe of $150,000?” Assistant US Attorney David Tobin asked.
Bairos said he had already invested a lot of time and energy in the Fall River location. “It’s tough to give that up and move to another location,” he said. “You just pay it and move forward.”
Bairos said he initially thought the bribe would be paid to Costa, but Costa later told him Correia had accepted his terms and would receive some of the money.
In June 2018, Bairos treated Correia to dinner at Ocean Prime in Boston’s Seaport district, followed by drinks at a cigar bar in the North End, he testified. Jurors were shown texts between the mayor and Bairos arranging to meet for dinner and a credit card receipt for the $258 dinner tab. At the end of the night, Bairos said, Correia asked him if they were “all set,” which he understood as a reference to the bribe.
Bairos, who testified under a grant of immunity, said that in the summer of 2018 he paid Costa $67,500 in mostly cash and some marijuana. The following March, he paid Costa another $10,000 in cash, Bairos said.
Camara told jurors he met Correia when he was high school classmates with his daughter and considered him “very, very much like a son.” He said he invested $50,000 in SnoOwl and lost it all. He had been unemployed for six years when Correia appointed him executive director of the Bristol County Training Consortium in 2016, with a yearly salary of just over $84,000.
That same year, he was at a jewelry store with Correia when a woman, now Correia’s fiancee, showed him a couple of Rolex watches. Correia was “interested in impressing” the young woman and wanted to buy both watches, Camara testified.
They drove to Correia’s apartment and Camara waited in the car while Correia retrieved $8,000 cash and asked him to buy the watches for him.