He was once a rising star of Massachusetts Democrats. On Friday, the mayor in Fall River, Massachusetts found himself under arrest.
The charges? The feds say he conspired to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies that wanted to operate marijuana businesses.
According to authorities, Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia took cash bribes in exchange for issuing official letters needed to obtain a license to set up a pot business.
They say at least four business owners paid a total of some $600,000 in bribes to the mayor. They then allege that he used the money to support a lavish lifestyle and cover mounting legal bills.
“Without hesitation, Mayor Correia was extorting marijuana vendor after marijuana vendor,” U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said.
He made his comments in 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.”
On Friday, local media outlets reached out to Correia’s lawyer for a comment. He didn’t give any.
The feds detailed some of the instances involved in the accusations.
In one, Lelling said Correia walked into a vendor’s office and simply asked for $250,000 to issue one of the letters.
Then there was the time he said Correia was paid $75,000 in cash while sitting in the backseat of a car and then promptly handed over a signed letter.
Despite attempts to force him out thanks to his legal troubles, Correia has remained in office.
These weren’t the first criminal complaints against him. The mayor was already facing charges on accusations that he stole investor funds to bankroll a lavish lifestyle – charges to which he has pleaded not guilty.
Agents from the FBI and the IRS played a role in the latest investigation, which authorities said highlighted the potential for abuse in Massachusetts’ retail marijuana industry.
Here’s how the state law works. A so-called non-opposition letter is required to obtain a license to operate a marijuana business, which is issued by the head of the local government.
That letter says that he or she has verified that the business is in a permissible zoning district.
Turns out there were at least 14 such letters issued by Correia. Two of which went to his current girlfriend’s brother, authorities said.
As of the time of this report, it wasn’t clear if authorities are alleging there was any illegal activity involved in the issuing of the letter to the brother.
“We’re a little concerned,” said Lelling. “Local mayors can be sorely tempted. That single letter can be the ticket to a very lucrative business.”
The whole scandal has lead State Inspector General Glenn Cunha to make comments that he hopes the indictment prompts state marijuana regulators to consider additional safeguards.
Back in 2016, Massachusetts voters approved recreational sale of marijuana. It wasn’t until last November that the first storefronts opened.
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Correia became the old mill city’s youngest mayor when he was first elected in 2015 at age 23. The indictment Friday also details other accusations against Correia.
The now 27-year-old is also accused of accepting cash payments and a Rolex watch from a property owner to approve permits for his commercial building.
Then there’s his chief of staff, who also faces federal charges. Correia allegedly made her give him half of her salary in return for allowing her to keep her city job, prosecutors said.
There are also three other associates charged in the marijuana extortion scheme who will appear in court on another day.
Earlier this year, things got really interesting. Correia was recalled by voters and then promptly reelected on the same night in March.
On September 17, he’s among three mayoral candidates in a primary election.
Last October, Correia pleaded not guilty to a 13-count indictment charging him with defrauding investors and filing false tax returns.
This after prosecutors say Correia collected more than $360,000 from investors to develop an app that was supposed to help businesses connect with consumers.
Ahtorities say he instead spent more than $230,000 of the money on jewelry, designer clothing and a Mercedes as well as on his political campaign.
The trial on those federal charges is slated to begin Feb. 24