More than five years after gaining national attention when he became mayor of Fall River at age 24, Jasiel F. Correia II was convicted Friday of what federal prosecutors described as “old school corruption,” from extorting bribes from marijuana companies vying to open dispensaries to stealing from investors in a smartphone app he helped create.
Correia, now 29, a Democrat who served as Fall River’s mayor from 2016 to 2019, was found guilty on 21 out of 24 charges, including nine counts of wire fraud, four counts of filing false tax returns, four counts of extortion conspiracy, and four counts of extortion. The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for 22 hours over four days.
Correia was found guilty of demanding bribes, ranging from $25,000 to $250,000, from four businessmen who needed his consent to open marijuana dispensaries and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors in SnoOwl, a smartphone app he helped create in 2013 while attending Providence College.
He was acquitted of a bribery charge related to allegations that he forced his chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, to give him half her city salary and a stipend she received for working during snow emergencies.
He was also acquitted of extortion and extortion conspiracy for ordering the city to pay the cost of restoring the water supply to a commercial building owned by a businessman, Tony Costa, who testified that he later gave Correia a Batman Rolex as thanks.
The scandal, which recalled an era of rampant political graft, drove Correia from office, a stunning fall from grace for a leader carried to office on a pledge to revitalize a struggling city.
US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock scheduled Correia’s sentencing for Sept. 20 and ordered him to wear a GPS device while he is free on bail. It’s unclear how much time Correia could serve in prison. The court will determine his federal sentencing guideline range based on various factors, including the nature of his crimes, the amount of money involved, and his history.
“Unfortunately, the criminal justice system failed us today, but our fight is not over,” Correia said as he left the courthouse with his parents, sister, and fiancee. “This is not a great day ... but we are going to have a great day of vindication and eventually the real truth will come out.”
Correia, who did not testify, insisted “there was no overwhelming evidence,” and said he would appeal based on some of the judge’s instructions to the jury.
“And we’ll be vindicated and my future will be very long and great,” he said.
Correia said he was offered a plea deal but rejected it “because I’m not guilty.”
However, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office issued a statement later Friday saying, “The government did not offer Mr. Correia a plea agreement.”
Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said the verdict “makes it crystal clear that you can’t trade on your office, embrace a corrupt pay-to-play culture, and get away with it.”
He said Correia “has done lasting damage to the trust bestowed upon him by the citizens of Fall River.”
Acting US Attorney Nathaniel Mendell said that since marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts, “there’s always been a concern that it would open the door to abuses and corruption. This case proves the theory that in fact the system here is ripe for abuse and in this case was abused.”
Recreational marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2016, creating 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 their proposed dispensaries were in compliance with zoning laws. In Fall River, that meant Correia.
After Friday’s verdict, Shaleen Title, former state cannabis control commissioner, issued a statement saying Correia’s case highlights the urgent need for the Legislature to pass reforms “that prevent both broad abuse and the inequities rampant in the local approval process.”
During two weeks of testimony in US District Court in Boston, jurors heard accounts from more than 30 witnesses who recalled clandestine meetings, middlemen who delivered payoffs while taking cuts for themselves, and a rising political star who used stolen money to bankroll a lavish lifestyle while paying off student loans and credit card debt.
In closing arguments, Assistant US Attorney Zachary Hafer told jurors that Correia used money he extorted from marijuana entrepreneurs or swindled from investors to bankroll a lifestyle that included extensive travel, frequent stays at expensive hotels, and extravagant purchases, including Rolexes bought with cash, down payments on Mercedes, $700 Christian Louboutin high heels for his girlfriend, sex toys, and $300 bottles of cologne for himself.
Correia’s lawyer, Kevin Reddington, portrayed him as a hardworking, creative entrepreneur who believed he had earned the money he spent from SnoOwl.
During closing arguments, he told jurors that Correia never took bribes and was falsely accused by witnesses who were granted immunity from prosecution or struck plea deals in exchange for leniency.
Perhaps the most incriminating evidence came from Fall River businessman Charles Saliby, who testified that in July 2018 he placed a $75,000 cash bribe directly into Correia’s hands as they sat in the mayor’s city-issued SUV outside the Saliby family’s store, Guimond Farms. Correia then handed him a non-opposition letter verifying that the city didn’t oppose his plan to open a retail marijuana dispensary next to the store, Saliby said.
Saliby said Correia initially demanded a $250,000 payment, but ultimately agreed to $150,000, to be paid in two installments.
Three other businessmen vying for dispensaries testified that they negotiated to pay bribes to Correia through middlemen who were close to the mayor. Correia later met them at City Hall, restaurants, and a cigar bar where he referred to the bribes in code while seeking assurances that they were “all good,” they said.
Correia’s aide and longtime friend Hildegar Camara testified that Correia was “very stressed out” in 2018 because he was facing mounting legal bills as the FBI investigated his handling of investor funds in SnoOwl. He said Correia asked him to have a marijuana vendor, Brian Bairos, donate $100,000 to his legal defense fund in exchange for a non-opposition letter. Camara acknowledged the money was a bribe.
Camara said a middleman, Costa, collected the bribe and left it in an envelope tucked under a paint can in a shed behind Camara’s house. Correia appeared “nonchalant” when he came to collect it, Camara testified. But Camara insisted they give it back, saying he was afraid it was “fed money” planted by investigators.
Camara said he believed the money was returned to the marijuana vendor. But Costa testified that he “played both sides” and kept the money for himself. Costa said he felt the money was owed to him because he had lost his $50,000 investment in SnoOwl in 2014.
During the first phase of the trial, investors in SnoOwl testified that they would not have invested in the company if they knew that Correia lied when he told them he had previously sold another app for a hefty profit. Rhode Island businessman Stephen Miller, who invested $70,000 in SnoOwl, said he believed Correia was “like a boy wonder.”
All seven of the investors, and two associates who founded SnoOwl with Correia, testified that he pledged to not draw a salary from the company until it became profitable. The investors said they lost their money.
Correia’s former girlfriend Natalie Cleveland testified that she believed he could afford finer things because he told her he made “a few million” from selling an app he developed before SnoOwl. She recounted how Correia flew across the country to Washington state “for a single day trip” to see her on the Fourth of July, and was a frequent guest at the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C., where he spent as much as $949 for a one-night stay.