Was Fall River’s mayor what he seemed?
FALL RIVER — Mayor Sam Sutter couldn’t believe it. City Councilor Jasiel F. Correia II, his opponent in the 2015 Fall River mayor’s race, was launching into their first one-on-one debate by accusing him of lying, corruption, and unethical behavior.
At 23, Correia was already a hell of a politician. He was charming and sharp, a celebrated entrepreneur, a wunderkind with his eyes locked on the camera.
But Sutter had known Correia for years and believed he was not what he seemed. A brilliant businessman? From what Sutter could tell from his campaign research, Correia appeared to have left some of his investors deep in the red.
“I think if anybody has integrity issues in this campaign, it’s you,” Sutter told Correia during the debate. And later: “How much money do you owe investors?”
Three years later, the FBI would provide an answer to the question Correia dodged that night on his way to winning the election: $231,447. On Oct. 11, Correia was arrested and arraigned in federal court in Boston, charged with defrauding investors in his tech startup SnoOwl and filing false tax returns to hide it. Federal prosecutors allege Correia spent the money on expensive travel, adult entertainment, and a luxury car.
In the wake of the charges, some who know Correia say there were warning signs that he was more gifted at flash than substance and that he valued his career over the struggling city he drove through in his black 2011 Mercedes-Benz C300 AWD Sport Sedan. The youngest mayor in the city’s history launched his alleged SnoOwl scheme the same year he launched his first run for public office. The stories he had told about his business acumen were, the government alleges, a convincingly constructed fantasy.
“What he is,” said Sutter, “is a salesman.”
Correia has furiously proclaimed his innocence and pleaded not guilty. At a press conference last Tuesday, he called the charges a “politically motivated attack” by an investor whose son wanted a city job, and he unveiled a PowerPoint presentation that he said proved SnoOwl was a working app.
“I will not allow political enemies to remove me from office for their own selfish agendas,” Correia said.
He has refused to resign, raising the specter of a vicious legal fight with the City Council, which is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to oust the mayor, who calls himself a “Fall River kid made good.”
Correia and a spokesperson did not provide answers to a detailed list of questions for this article.
Correia once seemed to embody everything that Fall River felt it was losing. It is a city that ranks regularly on lists of the most dangerous places in the area to live, where the young people grow up and leave, where the windows of the old mill buildings that once powered the city’s economy break and stay broken.
And Correia was young, energetic, relentless. He’d been a teenage activist named Fall River’s Youth of the Year in 2009 and a college intern for Senator John F. Kerry. In 2014, the local Chamber of Commerce gave him an “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. He spoke passionately of the need to bring businesses and youth to the city, and he’d started a “business incubator” called 1ZERO4 Business Academy in a mill building on Anawan Street, filling it with SnoOwl, other people’s startups, a pool table, and a baby grand piano.
His parents had considered moving away from Fall River when he was in middle school, his mother told the Associated Press, but Correia told them they had to stay so he could be mayor. And who knew what he might aspire to afterward? When he ran for president of the student congress at Providence College, one campaign ad flashed a picture of his face in the style of Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster.
But where some saw a rising star, others saw a young man with a nice car and a fixation on image, who rose to power almost haphazardly, after a bizarre incident involving former mayor William Flanagan and a gun.
The first time Correia ran for City Council, in 2013, he came in 10th in a field of 18 vying for nine seats. He joined the council only after one member left to take a job with city government.
Eight months later, he found himself at the center of a political firestorm. City residents, enraged over Fire Department layoffs and a pay-as-you-throw trash program, sought to recall then-Mayor Flanagan. Correia signed the petition.
A few days later, Correia said Flanagan asked him to meet late at night in his car, where, Correia said, Flanagan placed a gun on the dashboard while trying to persuade Correia to withdraw his name from the petition, according to a special prosecutor’s report.
Flanagan denied the accusation, and no charges were filed in the incident. A special prosecutor found Correia credible, but the evidence insufficient to support a criminal charge. But Flanagan was recalled, and Sutter was elected in a special election. A year later, in 2015, when Sutter’s term was up, Correia ran against him.
Correia emerged from his encounter with Flanagan as a sympathetic figure, said Linda Pereira, a former city councilor who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Correia in the 2017 election. “People in Fall River perhaps thought he was going to be a shining light. He was going to be a young adult, he brought spark to the city. People felt, ‘Let’s give him a chance,’ ” said Pereira. “But as time progressed and decisions were made I think people started to question that.”
Ray Mitchell, 75, a former city councilor and School Committee member, met with the mayor soon after his swearing in for his first term. Correia outlined plans for key personnel changes in several departments, and Mitchell said he counseled the mayor to take it slow.
Correia responded by sticking his finger in Mitchell’s face, he said.
“Look, I didn’t call you up here for advice. I don’t need it, nor do I want it,” Mitchell said the mayor told him. “I called you up here to tell you what I’m going to do, and I’m not changing my mind.”
Mitchell said he was shocked.
“I personally felt that he liked the power of being mayor,” Mitchell said. “I also think he had delusions of grandeur, which unfortunately ultimately got him into trouble.”
Correia’s tenure was not without success. He changed the city’s motto from the limping “We’ll Try” to the more confident “Make it Here” and eliminated an unpopular trash pickup fee. His office said that he took the city from a $500,000 deficit to an $8 million surplus, and supporters credit him with shepherding key construction projects, investing in the police and fire departments, and fully funding city schools.
But questions about Correia’s private business affairs surfaced and began to interfere with his ability to run the city.
One high-profile example was the combustion of his relationship with the Fall River Office of Economic Development and its president, Frank Marchione, an early supporter of and donor to Correia’s mayoral campaign.
Marchione said his relationship with the mayor soured in the spring of 2017, when Correia accused a staff member at the Office of Economic Development of urging the FBI to look into him and moved to block funding to the agency. Correia has disputed Marchione’s account, and said the agency was mismanaged, though he has also said repeatedly that the investigation was triggered by his political opponents.
Marchione denied that the agency tipped off the FBI, but said agents came to the staff member’s home, and then asked for documents. Fearing his agency and its members could be tarnished by the investigation if it looked like they’d concealed it, Marchione publicly disclosed the probe at a board meeting in April 2017.
Afterward, Marchione still hoped the Office of Economic Development could work with the mayor. But Correia, he said, wouldn’t set aside his grievance and seemed to want only to settle the score.
“I’m the mayor, and I need a win on this!” Marchione said Correia told him.
“It was the beginning of the end,” said Marchione. The agency renamed itself Bristol County Economic Development Consultants. It now does little work with the city and continues to battle a city lawsuit from that time.
For some who dreamed of great things for Correia, his arrest was a tragic fall.
“I’m just heartbroken,” said the Rev. Mark Nowel, the dean of undergraduate and graduate studies at Providence College. Nowel said he spoke with Correia about politics and was delighted, as a “technological dinosaur,” to hear about the work Correia said he was doing.
“He was obviously destined to be a leader,” Nowel said.
Niki Fontaine, who works on the city’s opioid task force, said she doesn’t believe the mayor is guilty. She said he was a passionate advocate who supported city programs for addicts and initiated a city lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis.
“I really hope it comes out that he didn’t do it,” she said.
But others are finished with him. In Columbia Bakery, which Correia once pointed out to a WBUR reporter as a shop from his childhood where his parents still bought fresh bread, the owner threw up his hands.
“Let the mayor stay in jail!” exclaimed Joaquin Dias, adding that he never liked the mayor, who is not currently in jail.
Citizens have started a petition to recall Correia if the City Council does not force him out first.
Two workers in the converted mill on Anawan Street where Correia had set up his Business Academy said they remembered Correia in his SnoOwl days coming to the office in his Mercedes and striding confidently through the building.
Now, there are few traces of his efforts there.
The second floor of the renovated mill where Correia ran SnoOwl and his 1ZERO4 business incubator is empty except for a clothing company, its sewing machines whirring behind white walls. In a turn that now seems prophetic, a $250,000 MassDevelopment grant for the incubator that Correia once bragged about in a mayoral debate was never actually awarded. The agency said last week that he had missed the deadline for filing paperwork.
The only sign SnoOwl was ever there is the baby grand piano in the dark.