Just two days after Fall River Mayor Jasiel F. Correia II was indicted for allegedly misappropriating investor funds last fall, one of his aides texted a marijuana vendor who was taking too long to pay a $150,000 bribe to open a pot shop in the city, federal prosecutors alleged Friday.
“Just don’t screw the kid,” Correia’s middleman texted the vendor on Oct. 13, 2018. “He did what he had to do for you.”
That business, the Giving Tree Health Center, was one of four prospective marijuana vendors that Correia extorted for hundreds of thousands of dollars between 2016 and 2019, prosecutors said Friday. Correia, 27, allegedly used middlemen to wring bribes from the companies. Some of the extortion occurred while he was under federal indictment for allegedly stealing more than $230,000 from investors in his tech startup, prosecutors said.
“If the allegations in today’s indictment are true, Mayor Correia has engaged in an outrageous, brazen campaign to turn his job into a personal ATM, victimizing not only the specific people involved, but also the residents of Fall River,” US Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a news conference.
Correia began “monetizing his official position to fund his lavish lifestyle and mounting legal bills” within months of becoming mayor in January 2016, according to the federal indictment, which charged him with extortion conspiracy, extortion aiding and abetting, and bribery.
Four other people are facing extortion charges, including Correia’s former chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, 48, and a mayoral aide.
Correia was arrested at 7 a.m. while he was playing tennis at a public court in Fall River. At his arraignment, his father, girlfriend and other supporters smiled at him when he was brought in wearing navy blue pants and a rumpled white Oxford shirt, his ankles in shackles.
He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $25,000 bond. Correia faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted.
Outside the courthouse, he thanked the city and his mayoral staff, declining to say whether he would resign. He wore a green pin with the initials FR, for Fall River, on his jacket lapel.
“I’m going to continue to do great things for our city and that’s all I have to say today,” Correia said.
His lawyer, Kevin Reddington, said the investigation rests on the word of witnesses with troubling backgrounds, including a drug dealer. Reddington did not identify that person.
“There is no corroboration,” Reddington said. “There is no legitimate witness other than somebody who has a deal with the government.”
Reddington noted that the arrest occurred 10 days before a preliminary mayoral election. Correia, who was recalled in March but retained his position, is running against two other candidates.
“The timing of this indictment is very troubling,” Reddington said. “The city of Fall River has never been in better shape. He’s loved by many, many people.”
On Friday, City Council President Cliff Ponte called on Correia to step down “temporarily” in light of his arrest and vowed that elected officials will work to “bring as much stability back and integrity back” to the city as possible.
“We will get through this,” Ponte said. “We’ve been here before and we will get through it as a community.”
City Councilor Stephen R. Long said Correia should resign.
“I know he’s innocent until proven guilty, but there’s a mountain of evidence at this point,” he said.
When he was arrested in October, Correia dismissed a chorus of calls for his resignation.
The latest indictment detailed shocking allegations that portray Correia as a shadowy figure who sent middlemen to meet with vendors and demand campaign contributions and collect envelopes full of cash.
In June 2018, Correia and Andrade showed up at one vendor’s store and went to an upstairs office, where Correia said he would provide a letter signaling his “non-opposition” to the new store in exchange for $250,000, according to the indictment.
Correia even extorted Andrade, allowing her to keep her job in exchange for giving him half of her $78,780 annual salary, prosecutors said.
Correia was also accused of extorting one of his middlemen, a commercial property owner in the city, who gave the mayor cash and a $12,000 Rolex watch in exchange for having the water supply in his building activated.
All marijuana companies that received host community agreements in Fall River were given federal subpoenas to provide documents about potential extortion, and some company leaders were interviewed by the FBI, according to an attorney familiar with the city’s applicants.
The non-opposition letters are key to opening medical marijuana dispensaries. In Fall River, the decision over whether to issue one fell entirely to Correia, Lelling said. Most municipalities also require the approval of top town or city officials, giving them sole discretion.
“You have a situation where local authorities or mayors could be extremely tempted to take a bribe or try to extort a business in exchange” for granting non-opposition letters, Lelling said.
The state’s Cannabis Control Commission said it is reviewing the indictment but had determined earlier this year that state law doesn’t currently allow them to oversee agreements between vendors and communities.
Prosecutors did not identify the marijuana vendors in court documents Friday, but the indictment detailed when vendors received their non-opposition letters and what is known as an “issuance of host agreement,” essentially contracts that allow a marijuana vendor to set up shop.
Giving Tree Health Center received its agreement on July 2, 2018 and was the only vendor to receive an agreement on that date, according to city records the Globe obtained through a public records request. The date was the same noted in the indictment, which identified the vendor as MJ Vendor 2.
That vendor made payments on the $150,000 bribe demanded by Correia in July and August 2018. The vendor also handed over 12 to 15 pounds of marijuana.
Blake Mensing, a lawyer for Giving Tree Health, declined to comment Friday.
In Fall River Friday, residents expressed a range of emotions: from disgust and dismay to enduring affection for a mayor they say has helped revitalize the former textile city.
Jennifer Rego, 39, said she credits Correia with the new businesses and stores that have opened along East Main Street.
“That’s all development that’s happened since he came into office,” she said as she sat in a coffee shop on Purchase Street. “As of right now, I’m not ready to throw [Correia] under the bus until I know a lot more. He’s not perfect. He’s human.”
Tonya Sousa, a lifelong resident of the city who was in City Hall getting a marriage certificate, said she was horrified by the latest allegations.
“He has his hands in everyone’s pockets,” said Sousa, 44. “I want him out so bad. It makes me sick.”