BOSTON — Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia II, who was indicted less than a year ago on federal fraud charges, was arrested again Friday for allegedly extorting marijuana vendors, seeking a bribe from a local business owner and demanding kickbacks from his top aide.
Federal prosecutors on Friday announced a range of new charges against Correia and four other individuals, two of them Fall River employees. The group, authorities allege, worked to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from marijuana vendors in exchange for approval to open in the city — a power that rested solely with Correia in what officials said is a sign the state should re-evaluate its cannabis regulations.
Accusations in the indictmentextend beyond the supposed extortion. Correia allegedly pressured his chief of staff, who was also arrested Friday, to pay him half of the salary she received as a condition of her job, and he allegedly received an expensive Rolex watch to prompt permitting help for a property owner.
Correia's attorney, Kevin Reddington, could not be reached for immediate comment Friday.
With the new charges, federal prosecutors expanded their case against Correia that began last year, when they alleged he defrauded investors in his technology company, SnoOwl. The initial indictment alleged that Correia used more than $230,000 that he claimed would only go to business expenses on a range of personal purchases, including a Mercedes-Benz vehicle, jewelry and dating services.
"If the allegations in today's indictment are true, Mayor Correia has engaged in an outrageous, brazen campaign of corruption that turned his job into a personal ATM, victimizing not only specific people noted in the indictment but the residents of the city he is supposed to lead," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, whose office filed the charges, said during a press conference.
Correia was arrested Friday morning "without incident," according to FBI special agent in charge Joseph Bonavolonta. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released on a $250,000 bond, 10% of which he must pay by Tuesday, according to news reports from the courtroom.
The four others facing charges in the case are 48-year-old Genoveva Andrade of Somerset, who was Correia's chief of staff; 58-year-old Hildegar Camara of Fall River, who was also in Correia's administration; and 51-year-old Antonio Costa of Fall River and 54-year-old David Hebert of Westport, both described by prosecutors as local property owners and friends of the mayor.
Andrade was also arrested Friday. She pleaded not guilty and was released on a $150,000 bond, per reports.
"Often in public corruption cases, the corruption expands to involve more people than just a particular public official," Lelling said. "It is hard for a high-profile public official like a mayor to pull this kind of thing off on his or her own."
Between 2016 and 2018, prosecutors said, Correia sought bribes from at least four marijuana companies looking to open businesses in Fall River. He allegedly told them he would only issue local approvals if he personally received hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Altogether, Correia pocketed more than $600,000 in bribes with the help of the four other defendants, often using middlemen to complete the transactions of cash, campaign contributions and mortgage discharges, according to prosecutors. Lelling said in some cases, the mayor and his co-conspirators secured promises that they would receive a cut of future marijuana sales.
Prosecutors said Correia also pressured an unnamed local businessman — who worked as a middleman in the alleged marijuana extortion — to buy him a Rolex watch valued between $7,500 and $12,000, often referred to as a "Batman" because of its appearance, and pay him $3,900 cash.
In exchange for the watch, Correia allegedly ensured the businessman received permits and excavation work to activate a water line to his commercial property.
"As Mayor Correia's appetite for spending grew, so too did his criminal activity," said Kristina O'Connell, special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service's Boston criminal investigations.
Andrade, Correia's former chief of staff, faces several charges for her alleged involvement in the extortion and bribery schemes. But authorities said she also faced pressure from the mayor, and was told when she was hired in November 2017 that she would have to kick back half of her $78,780 salary to Correia to keep the job.
Correia's dealing with marijuana companies had been under scrutiny before Friday's charges. According to a press release from Lelling's office, the mayor had issued 14 non-opposition letters allowing companies to open in Fall River, "including two for his current girlfriend's brother."
He vetoed a City Council order last month that would have limited the number of marijuana licenses across Fall River to either 11 total or 20% of the number of off-premise liquor licenses.
Asked if the marijuana vendors involved also engaged in corruption, Lelling — who noted the "irony" of him defending legal-in-Massachusetts pot companies despite the drug remaining illegal under federal law — said he did not allege they had conspired with the mayor.
He declined to answer a follow-up question about whether any of the vendors committed a crime by paying bribes to Correia.
The investigation is ongoing, and Lelling also declined to say whether there was knowledge of the scheme among other city officials.
While Lelling did not endorse a specific change in the state law, he and other authorities at Friday's press conference said the case highlights concerns with existing marijuana regulations.
The chance for wrongdoing could be elevated, they said, by the fact that a single head-of-government official in many municipalities is solely responsible for the local approval companies need to open in communities. Bonavolonta described it as "a perfect storm for corruption."
"While my office will resume its oversight role in this area, I hope today's indictment will prompt the Cannabis Control Commission, the Legislature and other stakeholders to evaluate what additional safeguards or reforms are necessary," said state Inspector General Glenn Cunha.
In Fall River, Northeast Alternatives is the one company that has received the go-ahead from the CCC to open for business. Northeast Alternatives, which operates other stores in Massachusetts, grows up to 5,000 square feet of marijuana, makes marijuana products and sells to consumers at a facility right near the Rhode Island border.
The CCC authorized the Fall River location to open to non-medical customers in January. Three other companies — Greener Leaf, Hope Heal Health, and Nature's Medicines — have provisional licenses from the CCC but have not opened for recreational business. A fifth company, The Haven Center, has submitted a retail application to the CCC.
A spokesperson for the CCC said the commission is reviewing the indictment and will continue to monitor the investigation. The commission does not have the authority under current law to review or enforce host community agreements for recreational marijuana dispensaries, though bills pending before the Legislature could alter that.
Jim Borghesani, a marijuana industry consultant who was communications director on the 2016 statewide legalization campaign, said in a statement that he hopes the case serves as a precedent.
"I applaud US Attorney Lelling for bringing forward charges in a classic municipal pay-for-play bribery scheme," Borghesani said. "But I hope that this egregious example does not eclipse the similar financial shakedowns on the cannabis industry present in nearly every Host Community Agreement signed to date in Massachusetts. Lelling has set a good example for the CCC and state leaders to follow."
Correia is now charged with nine counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns stemming from the original indictment as well as five counts of extortion conspiracy, five counts of aiding and abetting extortion and one count of bribery from the most recent charges.
Andrade faces charges of extortion conspiracy, aiding and abetting extortion, bribery and making false statements. Her attorney could not be reached for immediate comment Friday.
Camara, Costa and Hebert were each charged separately with extortion conspiracy, aiding and abetting extortion and making false statements. Court records only listed an attorney on file for Costa as of Friday afternoon, who declined to comment.
Colin A. Young contributed reporting.