BOSTON (AP) – entertainment for adults. A personal trainer. A helicopter tour of historic Newport, Rhode Island mansions. These were some of the things a former young Massachusetts mayor bought with money from investors who believed they would help create a smartphone app, a federal attorney told jury on Monday.
That was before 23-year-old Jasiel Correia won the race for Mayor of Fall River in 2015 and turned his government into a “government of blackmail and bribery,” said US assistant attorney Zach Hafer.
The Correia fraud and corruption case began in Boston federal court with the prosecutor trying to portray the 29-year-old as a fraud who had cleverly stolen from investors to fund his great lifestyle and ambitious political career.
“This is about lies, cheating, stealing and shakedowns,” said Hafer, chief of the criminal investigation department of the US attorney’s office, in his opening speech.
Correia is accused of stealing about two-thirds of the nearly $ 400,000 he received from seven investors for his app called SnoOwl, which is designed to help businesses connect with consumers. Prosecutors say Correia, as mayor, also extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from marijuana companies that want to operate in Fall River and forced his chief of staff to give him half her salary to keep her job in town.
It is the first high-profile lawsuit launched in federal court in Boston since the coronavirus pandemic began. Only 26 people – including 14 jurors – are allowed in the courtroom, and Plexiglas barriers have been placed around the bench, the witness stand and between the lawyers’ tables. Correia, in a dark suit and tie, entered the courthouse with his mother and fiancé.
Correia has denied any wrongdoing and criticized the case as an attempt to overturn his political career. His defense attorney told the jury that Correia was working non-stop to make the app a success and never made any promises to investors that he would not receive a salary.
“There was no intention of cheating. There was no intention of stealing. Most of all, he wanted to see this business as a success, ”said Kevin Reddington, whose previous high profile client is Catherine Greig. She was the longtime friend of the late Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and went to jail for helping Bulger evade capture.
Prosecutors said before he became mayor, Correia misled investors by falsely telling them he had previously sold another app for a big profit and would not receive any compensation. One investor was so close to Correia that he considered him a “surrogate son” and wrote check after check when Correia came back to him for more money, Hafer said.
Hafer listed a litany of things Correia spent investors’ money on: a Mercedes sedan, jewelry, luxury hotels, meals at high-end restaurants, and shopping in places like Burberry and Louis Vuitton. Correia also spent money on adult entertainment, Hafter said, but did not provide any further details. He made charitable donations on his own behalf, including $ 3,000 to the Fall River Children’s Aquarium, which later named a room after him, Hafer said. Some of the money actually went to software developers, he said.
As mayor, Correia is accused of soliciting bribes from marijuana companies in exchange for city approval letters they need to obtain a license. Three of Correia’s associates who previously pleaded guilty to this extortion program are among those expected to testify against him.
For months after his arrest, Correia defied calls to resign and survived a bizarre March 2019 election in which he was recalled by voters and re-elected that same night. After federal agents arrested him a second time – this time because of the extortion program – he agreed to a leave of absence in October 2019. He was ousted from the electorate the next month.
Reddington denied Correia blackmailed his chief of staff to repay him part of her salary, describing her as a mother figure to him. He also said he will try to portray the government witnesses who have cooperation agreements as liars saying whatever prosecutors want in order to receive a lighter sentence.
“The government ran out of paper to issue their immunity agreements and plea agreements here,” Reddington said.