BOSTON - Jasiel Correia II, the already embattled mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts, was arrested Friday on new federal extortion charges for allegedly operating a scheme to help marijuana vendors get approval to operate in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.
Prosecutors say Correia agreed to sign non-opposition letters in return for significant six-figure payments from four marijuana vendors looking to open businesses in the city of nearly 90,000 about an hour's drive south of Boston. The letters are required to obtain a license to operate a marijuana business in Massachusetts, where cannabis is legal.
Correia, 27, appeared in Boston federal court Friday afternoon and pleaded not guilty.
"I'm not guilty of these charges," he told reporters afterward, standing next to his attorney outside the courthouse. "I've done nothing but good for the great city of Fall River, me and my staff, and my team. I'm going to continue to do great things for our citizens."
The Democrat mayor also is accused of extorting $3,900 in cash and a $7,500-to-$12,000 "Batman" Rolex watch from a property owner in exchange for activating the water supply to his building. In addition, federal prosecutors say Correia demanded his chief of staff give him half of her $78,700 salary in return for appointing her and allowing her to keep her city job.
Four others, including the former chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, also were charged with federal crimes.
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Andrade faces federal extortion, theft and bribery, and false statement charges in connection with the scheme. Antonio Costa, Hildegar Camara and David Hebert were charged separately with extortion conspiracy, extortion, and false statements after allegedly lying to federal agents about their roles in helping Correia with his scheme.
It marks the second time in less than a year that Correia, first elected in 2015, has been indicted. He was arrested in October on charges he defrauded investors of an app company he co-owns by pocketing 64% of their payments to bankroll what prosecutors called his "lavish lifestyle" and political career. He's pleaded not guilty to those charges as well.
He now faces 24 total charges - 13 from last year's arrest and 11 new charges - including bribery, extortion conspiracy, extortion and aiding and abetting, wire fraud, and filing false tax returns.
Wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, and extortion aiding and abetting each each have maximum sentences of 20 years in person. The maximum sentence for filing false tax returns is three years while bribery carries up to 10 years.
How the marijuana scheme worked, prosecutors say
Despite his legal troubles, Correia survived an effort to oust him from office in March. In an unusual twist, he was recalled by voters, but elected the same night by finishing first among five candidates vying to fill the mayoral vacancy. He is running for his third term in November.
Marijuana has been legal for recreational use in Massachusetts since 2018 and for medical use since 2013. Since taking office, Correia has issued at least 14 non-opposition letters for marijuana businesses to operate in Fall River. Two of those, according to prosecutors, were for his girlfriend's brother.
Correia began "monetizing his official position" as mayor within months of being elected, prosecutors said.
In the pot scheme, prosecutors said in exchange for his signature two vendors agreed to pay Correia $250,000, another agreed to pay him $150,000 and a fourth $100,000.
One of the vendors also agreed to give an associate working for Correia profits from future marijuana sales, according to a superseding indictment filed Friday. In an agreement with another company, the money was to come to Correia in the form of cash, campaign contributions and a mortgage discharge. Correia told other vendors theirs would be the final non-opposition letter he would sign.
Marijuana also was exchanged for resale, according to prosecutors. They alleged one vendor gave a middleman connected to Correia between 12 and 15 pounds of pot and cash in addition to payments on a $150,000 bribe.
In August, Correia vetoed an ordinance approved by Fall River's City Council that sought to cap the number of recreational marijuana licenses at 11. He claimed his move was not to suppress competition and called out a council member who'd signed two non-opposition letters and voted for the measure.
"I'm not saying it's an ethics violation but it is definitely a conflict of interest," Correia said to The Herald News. "I don't think he should make a decision with a conflict of interest."
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Massachusetts mayor arrested for extorting marijuana vendors