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Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, who is already under indictment for wire and tax fraud, was arrested Friday for allegedly conspiring to extort more than $600,000 in bribes from four marijuana vendors.
According to the indictment, Correia also extorted a building owner for cash and a Rolex watch in exchange for permits, then used the building owner as a middleman to collect bribe money. According to property records, the owner of the building is Antonio Costa, who was arrested on multiple charges, including extortion and making false statements to investigators.
In addition, the government alleges, Correia in 2017 demanded that his then-chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, kick back half her city salary to him and participate in extorting marijuana vendors. Andrade was arrested on extortion and bribery charges, and two others also were arrested, according to the office of U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling.
At a news conference, Lelling said that Correia "has essentially run that town as a pay-to-play institution."
"If the allegations in today's indictment are true," Lelling added, "Mayor Correia has engaged in an outrageous, brazen campaign of corruption that turned his job into a personal ATM."
Correia pleaded not guilty to all charges Friday afternoon. His bond was increased to $250,000, from $10,000, and he is no longer allowed to travel outside of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He was ushered into the courtroom in handcuffs.
Adding to the indignity, Correia, a political prodigy who vaulted to his hometown's top job at age 23, had to listen to Judge Donald Cabell repeatedly mispronounce his surname.
Outside the courthouse, Correia told reporters that he is "not guilty of these charges."
"I've done nothing but good for the great city of Fall River — me and my staff and my team — and I'm going to continue to do great things for our city," he added.
Correia's office declined to comment. His Brockton-based lawyer, Kevin Reddington, appeared in court with him.
Suspicions of improper marijuana licensing have been swirling around the 27-year-old Correia for at least a couple of months.
"I think it’s something we all know, but completely ignore, is the money being given to the administration by these marijuana companies for these licenses and the kickback monies that he is receiving in order to issue these licenses," Fall River City Councilor Shawn Cadime said at a public meeting in July, according to the Herald News.
The government argues Correia extorted money from cannabis companies in part by offering to sign “non-opposition letters” in exchange for pay outs. In Fall River, those letters, the indictment says, were required and “typically negotiated and issued in conjunction” with the host community agreements that state regulators need in order to issue a license.
The Cannabis Control Commission is reviewing Lelling’s indictment against Correia, and said in a statement Friday that it “will monitor any ongoing investigation to protect the integrity of the Commonwealth’s licensing process for Marijuana Establishments and Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers.”
The “letters of non-opposition” used in Fall River are not required by state law to license recreational marijuana businesses, though the process for reaching host community agreements can vary by town or city, the commission said in the statement. There are several bills before state legislators that aim to give state regulators more authority over host community agreements.
Two other associates of the mayor were also charged in the new indictment. Hildegar Camara, 58, of Fall River, an employee in Correia's administration, is accused of conspiring with the mayor to extort marijuana vendors, Lelling said. David Hebert, 54, of Westport, who owns real estate in Fall River, was charged with conspiracy.
Last fall, Lelling's office charged Correia with defrauding investors in a company the mayor founded before his election. Prosecutors say Correia diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars of investments to finance a "lavish lifestyle" that included a Mercedes-Benz, designer clothing and adult entertainment.
He pleaded not guilty to those charges. The new charges announced Friday were incorporated into the original case under a superseding indictment.
Prosecutors said in court Friday that they are uncertain whether they'll be ready to go to trial by February, as planned, given the new charges. Judge Donald Cabell set a status hearing for Oct. 16.
Correia, a Democrat, survived a recall election in March and is on the ballot again, in a preliminary election, Sept. 17. The two leading vote-getters in a field of three will advance to November's general election.
Correia's top rival, Fall River School Committee member Paul Coogan, said Friday that "Fall River deserves better."
"He was already under indictment, so, going forward, we're going to stay right on message and keep campaigning," said Coogan, who finished second to Correia in the recall election.
Erica Scott-Pacheco, who is challenging Correia again after finishing fifth in the recall, said the latest charges against the mayor are "even more shocking" than the earlier ones.
"This pattern of criminal pay to play is simply unacceptable," she added.
This segment aired on September 6, 2019.
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