The embattled Fall River mayor came under new fire Wednesday for granting a key city approval to his girlfriend’s brother to open two marijuana stores.
City councilors and a government watchdog group said Mayor Jasiel Correia II should have recused himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“I don’t think it’s quite proper,” said City Councilor Stephen Long. “It’s a little strange, but hey, it’s not illegal. He didn’t do anything illegal, at least on this.”
It was the latest controversy for Correia, 27, who also faces federal fraud and tax evasion charges. He was both recalled and reelected in the same election in March.
The incident also highlights the power local officials have in choosing winners in the state’s booming new pot industry.
Last month, Correia awarded New Leaf Enterprises, which is owned by his live-in girlfriend’s brother, Pedro “Peter” Fernandes, a contract. The so-called host-community agreement is required to apply for a state cannabis license. The decision was first reported Tuesday by the Fall River Herald News.
Correia said that he acted appropriately, and that his meeting with Fernandes took place at City Hall with the city’s corporation counsel. Correia said he didn’t give special treatment to Fernandes, but also didn’t want to unfairly reject and “disenfranchise” him. Correia denied any financial benefit from the deal.
“The optics are poor by those that are detractors, but the reality is there’s nothing wrong with what we did,” Correia said. “I wouldn’t do anything that I feel puts Fall River in a bad light because of the scrutiny and microscope that I’m currently under.”
Fernandes, a real estate agent, said he grew interested in joining the pot industry in the spring, when he learned about the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s social equity program.
The program aims to help marijuana entrepreneurs from communities like Fall River that saw disproportionately high rates of pot arrests before legalization.
Fernandes said he qualified for the program because of a pot possession conviction from years ago. Now, he said, that awful experience will give him training, mentorship, and technical help.
“I couldn’t believe that something that the state looked at as bad now was good,” Fernandes said.
Correia said that compared to the 11 other agreements he has signed with marijuana companies, Fernandes at first didn’t seem to have enough capital for a viable business. All the other retailers in town had large-scale backing from out-of-state investors. But when Correia learned that Fernandes was in the social equity program, he said, he reconsidered.
Correia said his decision was barely consequential because the state cannabis commission, not the city, will ultimately decide whether to license the business.
“All we do is say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ that particular site is in the proper zone,” Correia said. “It’s the state that ultimately decides.”
But the Pioneer Institute, a nonpartisan government accountability nonprofit, said the decision still mattered. Without the approval, the business could not seek a state license. The group said the mayor should have recused himself from granting an “exclusive right,” such as a marijuana store approval, to someone in his personal life.
“To prevent the appearance of abuse, most officials recuse themselves from the process,” said Jim Stergios, the institute’s executive director. “That’s true whether the official act is a ‘process step,’ as in this case, or an actual decision. The mayor’s defense, which is tantamount to ‘Hey, the Cannabis Control Commission is the decision-maker, not me,’ is a diversion.”
Correia’s opponent in next month’s election said the decision reflected the mayor’s poor judgment.
“It doesn’t look good and it doesn’t smell good,” said Paul Coogan, a retired school vice principal. “It goes to the heart of his integrity and his decision-making skills.”
Correia was federally indicted last year on charges he stole $230,000 from investors in his tech startup, an app called SnoOwl. Correia is set to stand trial Feb. 24 on nine counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns. He has pleaded not guilty.