BOSTON (AP) — A young Massachusetts mayor’s tortuous tenure took another strange turn Friday when he was arrested on charges he conspired to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies seeking to operate marijuana businesses.
Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, who became the old mill city’s youngest mayor when he was elected in 2015 at age 23, brazenly accepted cash bribes in exchange for issuing official letters needed to obtain a license to set up a cannabis business, authorities alleged.
At least four business owners paid a total of $600,000 in bribes to the mayor, and he used the money to support a lavish lifestyle and cover mounting legal bills, they said.
“Without hesitation, Mayor Correia was extorting marijuana vendor after marijuana vendor,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a news conference after the mayor’s arrest. “It’s striking the lengths he went to get the money, and the seeming indifference with how overt his activities were.”
In one instance, Lelling said, Correia walked into a vendor’s office and simply asked for $250,000 to issue one of the letters. Another time, Correia was paid $75,000 in cash while sitting in the backseat of a car. He promptly handed over a signed letter, Lelling said.
In a brief court appearance, Correia pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include bribery, extortion, wire fraud and filing false tax returns. A judge ordered him to post $25,000 of a $250,000 bond, and his travel was restricted to Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“I’m not guilty of these charges. I’ve done nothing but good for the great city of Fall River,” Correia said outside the courthouse. “And I’m going to continue to do great things for the city.”
His lawyer, Kevin Reddington, said the indictment “reads like a bad John Grisham novel.”
He suggested that some of the government’s witnesses had criminal records and that the arrest was politically motivated. Correia is among three candidates in the mayoral primary Sept. 17.
“This is a case where there’s no corroboration, no physical evidence, no legitimate witness,” Reddington said. “The timing of this indictment is also troubling.”
Once a rising political star in Massachusetts, Correia has remained in office despite efforts to force him out amid his legal troubles. He was already facing charges on accusations that he stole investor funds to bankroll a lavish lifestyle. He has pleaded not guilty.
The latest investigation, which also involved agents from the FBI and the IRS, highlighted the potential for abuse in Massachusetts’ nascent retail marijuana industry, authorities said Friday.
Under state law, a so-called non-opposition letter is required to obtain a license to operate a marijuana business. The head of the local government issues the letters, which say that he or she has verified that the business is in a permissible zoning district.
Correia has issued at least 14 of the letters, including two for his current girlfriend’s brother, authorities said. It was not clear whether authorities were alleging that there was any illegal activity involved in the issuing of the letter to the brother.
State Inspector General Glenn Cunha said he hopes the indictment leads state marijuana regulators to consider additional safeguards.
Massachusetts voters approved the sale of recreational marijuana in 2016; the first storefronts opened last November.
Friday’s indictment also details other accusations against Correia. Authorities say the now-27-year-old mayor also accepted cash payments and a Rolex watch from a property owner to approve permits for his commercial building.
He also had his chief of staff, who also faces federal charges, give him half of her salary in return for allowing her to keep her city job, prosecutors said. It was not clear whether the staffer had a lawyer who could comment on the case.
Genoveva Andrade, a 48-year-old Somerset resident, faces similar extortion, theft and bribery as her former boss. She made her initial appearance Friday and wasn’t requried to enter a plea. Her lawyer declined to comment afterward.
Three other associates are also charged in the marijuana extortion scheme and will appear in court on another day.
In a strange turn of events this year, Correia was recalled by voters and then promptly reelected on the same night in March.
Correia pleaded not guilty in October to a 13-count indictment charging him with defrauding investors and filing false tax returns. Prosecutors say he collected more than $360,000 from investors to develop an app that was supposed to help businesses connect with consumers.
Instead, he allegedly spent more than $230,000 of the money on jewelry, designer clothing and a Mercedes, as well as on his political campaign and charitable donations.
A trial on those federal charges is to begin Feb. 24.
This story has been updated.