FALL RIVER (CBS) – Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia has been arrested for the second time in less than a year. Federal authorities said the 27-year-old tried to extort marijuana companies for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, among other acts of "outrageous" and "brazen" corruption as mayor.
The FBI and other special agents arrested Correia at his home Friday morning.
"Despite Mayor Correia's public assurances to the city of Fall River, based on today's indictment, he has essentially run that town as a pay-to-play institution," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a press conference. "If the allegations in today's indictment are true, Mayor Correia has engaged in a outrageous, brazen campaign of corruption which turned his job into a personal ATM."
Authorities said four other associates of the mayor are also charged, including Correia's former chief of staff Genoveva Andrade for alleged extortion and bribery.
"I'm not guilty of these charges," Correia said after he appeared in Boston federal court and was released on bail Friday afternoon. "I've done nothing but good for the city of Fall River."
Correia's lawyer called the timing of the indictment "troubling," given that the mayor is running for re-election and the primary vote is scheduled for Sept. 17.
"They've got an indictment that reads like a bad John Grisham novel, by the way," defense attorney Kevin Reddington said.
The updated 24-count indictment includes accusations of extortion conspiracy, aiding and abetting extortion, and bribery, on top of charges of wire fraud and filing false tax returns that Correia was already facing.
"Within months of becoming mayor in January 2016, Correia began monetizing his official position to fund his lifestyle and mounting legal bills," prosecutors wrote in the indictment.
In addition to allegedly extorting at least four marijuana vendors who wanted to set up shop in the city, Correia is accused of extorting a building owner for cash and a "Batman" Rolex watch worth about $10,000 in exchange for permits. Prosecutors said he also "corruptly" demanded that Andrade kick back half of her salary and nearly all of a $10,000 "snow stipend" to Correia in exchange for being appointed to his staff while keeping her city job.
Andrade allegedly told one marijuana vendor last summer that "there are lots of sleazy things the mayor has going on" and, "you want to hear something even more f***ed up … I have to give [Correia] half of my salary." She also added that Correia had a safe with "hundreds of thousands" of dollars received from bribes, according to the indictment.
Correia was asking for up to $250,000 each from marijuana companies in exchange for "non-opposition" letters that would effectively allow the vendors to operate in Fall River, according to prosecutors. He is said to have received $600,000 in total and some alleged arrangements involved Correia and his co-conspirators getting a cut from future marijuana sales.
In one case detailed in the indictment, a mayoral aide instructed a middleman to leave an envelope stuffed with $25,000 cash in a backyard shed behind the aide's home. In another, Correia himself showed up at a marijuana vendor's business and asked for a quarter million-dollar payment, Lelling said. He also allegedly received $75,000 in cash in the back of a car, and then handed over a letter.
Last October, Correia was arrested on 13 federal fraud charges, and a trial date had been set for February 2020. The United States Attorney's office alleged that the now-27-year-old defrauded investors of his company SnoOwl and used the money to pay for his "lavish lifestyle" and political campaign.
Lelling said at the time that Correia used investor money on items including airfare, luxury hotels, casinos and adult entertainment. He also purchased a Mercedes Benz and jewelry for an ex-girlfriend.
The mayor pleaded not guilty to the charges, calling them "politically motivated."
"It's not going to be a plea," Kevin Reddington said outside court. "It's going to be a trial."
Fall River City Councilor Stephen Long told WBZ he once trusted Correia, but now he wants to see him out of office. "Early this morning I was just heartbroken. My chin hit the floor," Long said. "I think the right thing for him to do right now would be to resign. And I would ask him to resign at this point."
Despite the allegations, the young mayor still has supporters in the city, who believe these charges are political.
"I think he's a good person to be a mayor," said one woman who did not want to be identified. "He's young, he's inexperienced maybe, he did some things in the past he shouldn't have done. I think they're just trying to find something on him. I support him wholeheartedly."
Correia was first elected Mayor of Fall River at age 23 in November 2015 after two years on the city council. In an unusual situation this March, voters recalled Correia from office but he won enough votes to win re-election in the same night.
Despite his indictment, Correia is running for re-election this fall. The investigation into him is ongoing, Lelling said.
State inspector general Glenn Cunha said he hopes this bribery case prompts the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission to "evaluate what additional safeguards or reforms are necessary."
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