BOSTON (AP/WWLP) — A former Massachusetts mayor first elected at the age of 23 by touting himself as a successful entrepreneur was convicted Friday of stealing money from investors in his start-up to bankroll his lavish lifestyle and soliciting bribes from marijuana vendors who wanted to operate in the struggling mill city.
Jasiel Correia was found guilty of extortion, fraud, and filing false tax returns after 23 hours of jury deliberations over four days in a trial that highlighted Correia’s swift rise and fall in Fall River, where he had dazzled voters at a young age with his promises to turn the city around.
Former Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title in a statement to 22News said the case may represent the most extreme type of abuse of host community approval, but it highlights the urgent need for the legislature to pass host community agreement reforms that prevent both broad abuse and the inequities rampant in the local approval process.
Title stated, “The intent of cannabis legalization was to create equitable access to the industry and licensing process with consistent limits on fees. Whether it’s unjustified demands for a percentage of revenue or contractually obligated ‘voluntary donations’ in exchange for HCAs, it’s time to bring consistency, transparency, and equity to the local licensing process by passing Sen. Jehlen’s reform bill, S.72.”
Correia, now 29, was also acquitted on three counts, including accusations that he forced his chief of staff to give him half of her salary in order to keep her city job.
Correia, who insisted he was innocent and attacked the charges as politically motivated, never took the stand. After leaving Boston’s federal courthouse fitted with a electronic-monitoring bracelet, Correia told reporters that his “fight is not over” and predicted he would win on appeal.
“Eventually the real truth will come out,” Correia said. “I will be vindicated and my future will be very long and great.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Mendell called the verdict “a fitting end to this saga.”
“Correia made a lot of promises, a lot of bold statements in business, in politics and in government,” Mendell said. “The jury found today, in its verdict, the truth.”
Correia’s lawyer had argued his client wasn’t a criminal, but merely an inexperienced businessman who believed that he was free to use investors’ money as he deemed fit while he was producing the smartphone app.
Before Correia became mayor, prosecutors say he lured investors to support his app called “SnoOwl” by falsely claiming that he had previously sold another business for a big profit. Prosecutors say he used nearly two-thirds of the almost $400,000 he took from investors on himself and spent it on things like fancy hotels, casinos, high-end restaurants and expensive gifts for his girlfriend.
Investors who took the stand told jurors they handed over their cash because they believed Correia was bright, trustworthy and headed for great things. One investor said he thought Correia was a “boy wonder” and that Correia assured him he wasn’t going to “take a dime” out of the company so all the money could go to the development of the app.
Instead, prosecutors say Correia looted a bank account filled with investor money to pay for things like a helicopter tour of Newport, Rhode Island, a Mercedes, a $300 bottle of cologne and a $700 pair of Christian Louboutin shoes for his girlfriend.
“These weren’t occasional purchases, this is shameless continued stealing without any regard for the fact that he is betraying people who trusted him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Zach Hafer said.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors portrayed Correia as a serial liar, who they said misled voters in order to get elected just like they said he duped investors.
In a clip shown to jurors from a 2015 debate during the race for mayor, Correia promised taxpayers that he would “take your money and spend it wisely” — because he said that’s what he had done in his business. His lie about how he previously sold another app for big money allowed him avoid questions about how he could afford such a lavish lifestyle on his $17,000 annual salary as a Fall River city councilor, prosecutors said.
After the Democrat took office as mayor in 2016, prosecutors say Correia quickly turned to “old school pay-to-play political corruption,” by soliciting bribes from marijuana vendors seeking to operate in Fall River. Marijuana business owners, who were given immunity to testify against Correia, told jurors about how Correia or middlemen negotiated bribes in exchange for letters of approval from the city they need in order to get a license.
Correia’s lawyer attacked the credibility and sought to shift the blame onto the government’s witnesses who had cooperation agreements with prosecutors, suggesting they were lying in an effort to help themselves.
One man, who pleaded guilty in the extortion scheme, told jurors about how he collected an envelope filled with $25,000 in cash that a middleman had put in a shed behind his home. The witness, Hildegar Camara, said he opened the envelope in front of Correia and got spooked, telling the mayor, “If you take this or I take this, we’re going to go to jail.”
Another man, who was hoping to operate a marijuana business in Fall River, described how Correia showed up at his family’s store and asked for $250,000, saying he needed it for legal defense fees. After Correia and Charles Saliby eventually agreed on a lower bribe, Correia’s chief of staff told Saliby: “You’re family now,” according to Saliby’s testimony.
Correia was acquitted of two extortion counts related to a scheme involving a Rolex watch and one count of bribery stemming from accusations that he convinced his chief of staff to kickback part of her salary to him.
Correia’s lawyers argued it wasn’t a bribe but a loan from a mother-like figure to Correia. And though his chief of staff pleaded guilty to charges including extortion and bribery, she never took the stand to testify against Correia.
He’s scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 20.