BOSTON — After he was elected mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts, at just 23 years old, it seemed Jasiel Correia's political career had nowhere to go but up. Bright and dynamic, Correia charmed voters by portraying himself as a successful entrepreneur who could revive the struggling old mill city.
Prosecutors say in reality he was a fraud and a thief.
Correia heads to trial this month on charges that he stole more than $230,000 from investors in a smartphone app he created to pay for things like a Mercedes, casino trips and adult entertainment. As mayor, he's accused of convincing his chief of staff to give him half of her salary in order to keep her city job and extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from marijuana businesses seeking to operate there.
The trial — one of the first to be held in Boston’s federal court since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — will showcase Correia’s dramatic rise and fall in the southeastern Massachusetts city of 89,000 that's still hurting by the collapse of its once-booming textile industry. Prosecutors will try to show that Correia swindled investors just like his critics say he smooth-talked voters into entrusting him with the city.
"My husband says it best: He could convince the pope that there’s no God," said Linda Pereira, a Fall River city councillor whom Correia defeated to be reelected mayor in 2017.
Even as Correia's former chief of staff and three others have pleaded guilty in the extortion scheme, the former mayor, now 29, has remained defiant. He has denied any wrongdoing, insisted the app designed to help businesses connect with consumers was legitimate and blamed the charges on political foes who want to bring him down.
The question now becomes: Will he take the stand to try to convince jurors? Correia's name is on the defence's witness list, but it remains unclear whether he will actually testify.
Unlike many defendants who keep quiet to avoid saying anything that could be used against them in court, Correia has been outspoken since his 2018 arrest. He walked reporters through a PowerPoint presentation to rebut the allegations days after the first charges were brought, and participated in a documentary series executive produced by Mark Wahlberg about Correia's tumultuous political career.
"If I’m doing something wrong, come and get me. Go ahead and do it. But I didn’t do anything wrong," Correia said in the series called "Run This City" that aired last year on the now-defunct streaming platform Quibi.
"I’m innocent until proven guilty and I’m not going to be proven guilty," he said.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Tuesday. Correia faces charges including wire fraud, extortion conspiracy and bribery.
His attorney declined to comment to The Associated Press, but has previously said the indictment "reads like a bad John Grisham novel" and that prosecutors have "no corroboration, no physical evidence, no legitimate witness."
After Correia became a city councillor at the age of 22, the city's local paper, The Herald News, described him as "a classic example of a Fall River kid made good."
Correia was at the centre of a media frenzy in 2014 when he alleged that Mayor Will Flanagan intimidated him with a gun during a late-night meeting over Correia’s support of a mayoral recall petition. Flanagan never faced criminal charges, but was recalled in an election that year and replaced by the county's district attorney. Correia will be defended at trial by the same lawyer who represented Flanagan during that probe.
In the 2015 race against Mayor Sam Sutter, Correia touted the app called SnoOwl, capitalized on social media to reach voters and vowed to attract young residents and rebrand the city with the motto, "We'll try." Sutter raised some questions about Correia's business, but said he regrets not seizing on the issue during the race.
"Jasiel was making the case that he was a millionaire entrepreneur when he wasn’t and I kind of fault myself for not being able to expose that. I knew SnoOwl was a bust," Sutter said.
Authorities say three years before Correia became mayor, he began seeking investors in his start-up, promising he wouldn't take a salary and had already sold another app for a big profit. Within weeks of getting $50,000 check from one investor, prosecutors say Correia used $10,000 of that to buy a Mercedes sedan.
Over the next several months, prosecutors say Correia used investors' cash to pay for dating services, luxury hotels and designer clothes, ease his student loan debt and support his political career. Overall, prosecutors allege he spent nearly two thirds of the more than $360,000 he took from investors for himself.
For months after his arrest, Correia resisted calls to leave office and survived a bizarre election in March 2019 during which he was recalled by voters and reelected the same night. But after federal agents arrested him a second time — this time for the extortion scheme — he agreed in October 2019 to take a leave of absence. He was ousted by voters the next month.
As mayor, Correia is accused of soliciting bribes from marijuana companies in exchange for letters of approval from the city they need in order to get a license. Authorities say Correia or associates negotiated the bribes with owners of the companies at places like a swanky Boston steakhouse, cigar bars, and a Dunkin Donuts.
"You're family now," Correia's chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, told one of them after they agreed on the bribe during a meeting in 2018, authorities say in court documents.
In another case, a middleman left an envelope filled with $25,000 in cash from a marijuana business owner in a shed behind the home of a Correia aide, prosecutors said. Authorities say the aide later returned the money to the middleman, saying Correia feared it was "Fed money."
Three of Correia's associates who pleaded guilty in the extortion scheme are among those who could testify against him.
Meanwhile, in Fall River, many who feel hurt by the former mayor will be watching closely.
"There was a local person who I know personally who cried to me telling me how stupid he felt that this kid conned him," said Pereira, the city councillor.
"I said, ‘You know what? Don’t feel that way because he convinced a whole community,’" she said.