Fall River city councilors debate ousting embattled mayor
FALL RIVER — City councilors clashed at a heated Tuesday night public meeting over whether to force out embattled Mayor Jasiel F. Correia II, who faces federal fraud charges and an eviction notice.
Some city residents at the forum bitterly lamented the disgrace Correia’s indictments have brought on Fall River, while others made impassioned pleas for the mayor to stay.
“If the mayor truly loves Fall River, he should step down,” said council President Cliff Ponte.
But the council could not come to an agreement over whether they had the power or the justification to remove the mayor, and three separate motions — to declare Correia unfit to perform his duties, to take a vote of “no confidence,” and to ask him to resign — were tabled until the council’s next scheduled meeting on Oct. 23.
Correia, a Democrat, was arrested Thursday morning and charged with stealing more than $231,000 from investors in SnoOwl, the app he launched to connect businesses to consumers. Federal prosecutors said he used the money on expensive travel, a Mercedes-Benz sedan, casinos, and adult entertainment.
He is also charged with filing fraudulent tax returns in an effort to conceal the alleged scheme. Prosecutors allege Correia, 26, stole about 64 percent of the $363,690 that SnoOwl’s seven investors contributed and spent it before being sworn in as mayor in 2016.
He has pleaded not guilty to nine counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns.
Adding to his woes, the Bristol County Sheriff’s office said Monday that Correia was served with an eviction notice from his apartment.
Pam Laliberte-Lebeau, council vice president, said that with Correia at the helm, state officials like Governor Charlie Baker, who has urged Correia to step aside while his case is pending, would not want to deal with Fall River.
“This council isn’t, and didn’t, put the city in turmoil. Jasiel Correia did that,” she said.
“Jasiel!” implored Councilor Leo O. Pelletier. “Do the right thing, for the city of Fall River and everybody else. And step down.”
But other councilors urged caution, saying efforts to oust Correia may violate the city’s charter, that the mayor deserved the presumption of innocence and that a legal battle with the mayor would be expensive and painful.
“We don’t need to act by mob rule,” said Councilor Steven A. Camara. “We better be prepared to spend a lot of money to discredit a person who is innocent until proven guilty.”
Camara objected to all three motions, made by councilors Shawn E. Cadime and Bradford L. Kilby, to expel Correia, triggering the postponement of the vote.
Many citizens who spoke during the public comment period said they were embarrassed by the indictments, and believed Correia could no longer lead the city. One man called him “a super criminal”; several others said that regardless of his guilt or innocence, he could not lead while fighting federal charges.
“In this last week, Mayor Correia has turned this city into a national disgrace,” said Colin Dias, 18, a student at Bristol Community College. He said he did not want to speak out against the mayor, but he had to put his city first. “Mayor Correia is driving the city through the mud with his arrogance and his refusal to gracefully resign.”
Earlier Tuesday, Correia said he would not resign and intends to battle any attempt by the City Council to remove him.
“This is America and I am presumed innocent until proven otherwise,” Correia said in a defiant speech at City Hall, where his supporters and staff members cheered and heckled the press who attempted to ask questions. “I will not allow political enemies to remove me from office for their own selfish agendas.”
Correia, a Democrat, spent much of his speech attacking US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s statement last week that SnoOwl was in the “prototype stage.” Correia even showed a video clip of Lelling making the statement.
But the mayor said SnoOwl was not a prototype, but a fully functioning app.
To make his point, he unveiled a PowerPoint presentation with photos of the app’s official launch in 2015 and Google analytics showing how many users it had over the last several years (about 3,200). He also asked for a show of hands of how many people had downloaded SnoOwl and he looked pleased when a large number of hands went up from his supporters and staff and even one reporter.
“The app made it to the App Store and was a real consumer product,” Correia said.
Lelling’s office declined to comment Tuesday. But in his remarks last week calling SnoOwl a “prototype,” he also said, “It’s important to note that there was an actual product that SnoOwl created. There was a prototype for an app. It actually did work.”
Correia blasted the charges against him as “a politically motivated attack” by an investor whose son, he said, wanted a job in City Hall.
“I will fight it, and I will allow the truth to come out, and I think there is going to be a lot of people that will be embarrassed, a lot of local people that will be embarrassed,” Correia said as his supporters and staff members cheered and yelled, “bring it on!”
The only way he would leave office, he said, is if there is a recall election. He said it would not be legal or legitimate for the council to try remove him from office.
When the press tried to ask questions, his supporters heckled and yelled, “fake news!” and “listen to the mayor!”
Cheryl Costa, a 66-year-old retired home health aide, was among the supporters who showed up for the speech. She said Correia is the “best mayor Fall River has ever had, and I’m an old lady, and I’ve seen a lot of mayors.”
“I will support him to the end,” Costa said.