Massachusetts mayor charged with marijuana-vendor extortion

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Fall River, Massachusetts, Mayor Jasiel Correia II has pleaded not guilty to charges of extorting state-licensed marijuana vendors for six-figure amounts in bribes.

Correia, 27, has been charged in a superseding 24-count indictment with bribery; extortion conspiracy; extortion and aiding and abetting; wire fraud; and filing false tax returns.

Prosecutors from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts also charged Correia with extorting a building owner for cash and a Rolex watch in exchange for activating the water supply to a commercial building; and demanding his chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, give him half of her salary in return for appointing her and allowing her to keep her city job.

“In short, he has essentially run that town as a pay-to-play institution," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, said Friday in Boston.

Correia was previously arrested and charged last October for his involvement in a scheme to defraud investors in a smartphone app company called SnoOwl, which Correia co-owned and was designed to promote discounts and specials at local businesses.

“Well, we’re back," Lelling told reporters.

Correia, arrested at home, entered and exited the Boston courtroom in handcuffs. He was released on $250,000 bond and has until Tuesday to post $25,000.

“I’m not guilty of these charges. I’ve done nothing but good for the great city of Fall River,” said Correia, who told the media he would not resign.

According to the indictment, Correia agreed to issue non-opposition letters to marijuana vendors — a requisite for operating in Massachusetts — in return for cash bribes and other payments.

Massachusetts voters elected to legalize cannabis in 2016. They voted in 2008 to decriminalize possession of small amounts and four years later legalized its medical use.

The alleged bribes ranged from roughly $100,000 to $250,000 in cash, campaign contributions and mortgage discharges in return for non-opposition letters and host community agreements. Marijuana was also exchanged for resale, prosecutors said.

“When it rains, it pours. Clearly, federal prosecutors continue to find reasons to add to the prior allegations,” said Anthony Sabino, a white-collar legal expert and law professor at St. John’s University.

Andrade, 48, Correia's chief of staff from November 2017 through December 2018, was charged with extortion conspiracy; extortion; theft and bribery; and false statements.

According to the indictment, Andrade's salary kickback to Correia continued for about eight months, and she shared information about the scheme with "MJ Vendor #5," allegedly saying, “you want to hear something even more [messed] up … I have to give [Correia] half of my salary.”

Andrade resigned in January to run Correia’s recall campaign. "At the least, a major shake-up in local politics is a given," Sabino said.

The City Council this week may consider removing Correia and also converting to a town manager form of government.

Correia, a Democrat elected mayor of the 89,000-population southeastern Massachusetts city in November 2015 at age 23, survived that recall effort, thanks to a quirk in the city charter that allowed him to run for re-election on the identical ballot as the recall petition.

More than 60% of voters recalled Correia in March, he won a five-way race for the post by a plurality, having renominated himself.

Moody's Investors Service in January termed the recall unrelated to city operations. Moody's rates Fall River's general obligation bonds A3.

The mayor's office is up in a regularly scheduled election in November. Correia faces two other candidates in a three-way Sept. 17 primary.

Antonio Costa, 51, Hildegar Camara, 58, and David Hebert, 54, were charged separately with extortion conspiracy, extortion, and false statements in connection with subsequent false statements to federal agents about their roles in assisting Correia obtain money and property from marijuana vendors.

Costa, Camara and Hebert will appear in court at a later date.

Lelling, a Republican whom President Trump appointed in 2017, said the investigation is ongoing.

“What will be interesting is to see if any [additional] co-conspirators are named in this or subsequent indictments,” Sabino added.

Massachusetts' 2016 law allows cities and towns to hold local referendums to ban marijuana shops, farms, and related companies. Subsequent legislation, though, established that a city or town doesn't have to go to referendum if the townspeople voted against the measure in that 2016 state referendum.

The slow rollout of pot stores has been a drag on projected tax revenues. According to the Boston Globe, the commonwealth projected $63 million in taxes by June 30, but had received only $5.9 million as of March 1.

Extortion conspiracy charges provide for a sentence of up to 20 years, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. Extortion aiding and abetting charges could bring up to 20 years, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. The bribery charge provides for a sentence of up to 10 years, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

Massachusetts has been reeling with public corruption scandals of late.

Two former Boston City Hall officials, Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan, were convicted recently for intimidating promoters of the Boston Calling music festival to hire union labor.

In addition, William “Buddy” Christopher, Mayor Marty Walsh's coordinator on the opioid crisis, is taking a leave of absence pending an investigation of influence-peddling allegations at the Zoning Board of Appeal.

Separately, Dana Pullman, the former head of the State Police union, faces charges of embezzling funds from his labor group.

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Corruption State and local finance Marijuana industry Massachusetts