A lawyer for Jasiel F. Correia II said Monday that the former Fall River mayor never took bribes from marijuana vendors and didn’t steal from people who invested in a smartphone app he helped create, as the federal corruption case went to the jury.
In closing arguments, defense lawyer Kevin Reddington suggested that Correia’s extravagant spending of investors’ money on gifts and trips for himself and his former girlfriend was a youthful mistake, not an intent to defraud.
“The government acts like he has a law degree on top of a tax degree. He doesn’t,” Reddington told jurors in US District Court in Boston as more than 450 people watched on Zoom. Correia, 29, always acted in “good faith” and there was “no crime, no larceny,” Reddington said.
But Assistant US Attorney Zachary Hafer denounced Correia’s conduct as “disgusting” and said there was too much evidence of extortion, bribery, and fraud to explain it away as innocent mistakes or fabrications by witnesses who are cooperating with the government.
“He sold the mayorship of Fall River,” said Hafer, describing Correia as the architect of “old-school corruption.”
Hafer told jurors that Correia burned through $400,000 he stole from people who invested in his smartapp, SnoOwl, and after becoming mayor in 2016 launched a new scheme to shakedown marijuana vendors who needed his consent to open a dispensary in the city.
“What he wanted was money and what he wanted was power,” Hafer said. “Money he was willing to steal and power he was willing to sell. That’s the evidence in this case.”
US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock let the jury of nine women and three men go for the day after instructing them on the law and told them to begin their deliberations Tuesday.
Over the past two weeks, jurors heard testimony from more than 30 witnesses. Correia, a Democrat, is accused of plotting with middlemen and aides to extort $600,000 from four businessmen seeking to open marijuana dispensaries in Fall River while he was mayor from 2016 to 2019; and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who invested in SnoOwl, which he helped develop in 2013 while he was attending Providence College.
He faces 24 charges, which include extortion conspiracy, extortion aiding and abetting, bribery, tax evasion, and lying to investigators. He’s also accused of forcing Genoveva Andrade, his former chief of staff, to give him half her annual city salary and a $10,000 stipend for working during snow emergencies. Reddington argued Monday that Andrade willingly gave the money to Correia as a loan.
One businessman, Charles Saliby, testified that Correia personally showed up at his family’s Fall River store, Guimond Farms, in July 2018 to collect a $75,000 cash bribe as they sat outside in his city-issued SUV. In exchange, Correia handed him a nonopposition letter, a state requirement for a dispensary, and a host agreement with the city, he said.
“That’s extortion,” Hafer told jurors. “It doesn’t get any more arrogant. It doesn’t get any more illegal.”
Three other marijuana vendors testified they were told by middlemen who were close to Correia that he wanted a bribe, ranging from $25,000 to $250,000, in exchange for a nonopposition letter. One businessman testified that he was told to disguise the bribes as campaign contributions.
One of the middlemen, Tony Costa, admitted that he kept a bribe that was supposed to go to Correia because he was “playing both sides” and felt Correia owed him because he had lost money he invested in SnoOwl.
Reddington urged jurors to scrutinize the testimony of the marijuana vendors, who testified with grants of immunity from prosecution, and several middlemen, who pleaded guilty to extortion-related charges in exchange for recommendations of leniency by the government.
Reddington said it was absurd to think Correia would have met Saliby to collect a bribe because he knew he was under investigation for his involvement with SnoOwl and the FBI was “all over him like a new suit.”
The first week of testimony focused on allegations that Correia duped seven people into investing in SnoOwl by falsely claiming he had made a hefty profit by selling another smartphone app. Prosecutors said he used their money to support a lavish lifestyle. His former girlfriend testified that he was an extravagant spender, who bought her $700 Christian Louboutin high heels, Tiffany jewelry, and Burberry coats. He flew across the country for a day trip to celebrate the Fourth of July with her and spent $949 for a night at the Willard InterContinental in Washington D.C., she said.
An IRS agent testified that in 2013, Correia spent 79 percent of investor money on himself.
“It was a con, a con that involved betraying investors,” Hafer said. “For what? So he could live the high life.”
Reddington said SnoOwl was a legitimate business and said Correia worked hard to make it a success. Everything he did was done in good faith and what he thought was in the best interest of the company.
As for his spending, Reddington said Correia “thought mistakenly this was money that was his because he was working and he was producing and he was developing this app.”
“He’s 22 years of age,” Reddington said of Correia’s efforts to attract SnoOwl investors. “He’s dealing with these older gentlemen who are pretty business-savvy.”