The fast-moving corruption trial of Jasiel F. Correia II, the 29-year-old former mayor of Fall River, involved a web of duped investors, marijuana companies vying to open dispensaries, shady middlemen, and lots of cash. With a federal jury slated to hear closing arguments on Monday, here’s a recap of testimony over the past two weeks.
Lifestyles of the rich and famous
Correia’s former girlfriend, Natalie Cleveland, 25, testified that he was a big spender when they dated from September 2013 to January 2017. He showered her with gifts, including a pair of $700 Christian Louboutin high heels, a $1,070 Tiffany necklace, and a $259 Kate Spade handbag. He bought himself a $300 bottle of cologne, and bought suits at a boutique men’s clothing store in Washington, D.C.
Testifying by Zoom, Cleveland recounted how Correia flew across the country to Washington state “for a single-day trip” in 2014 to see her on the Fourth of July. He rented a helicopter to show her Newport, R.I., paid for their vacations in Hawaii and on Cape Cod, and was a frequent guest at the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C., where he once spent $949 for a one-night stay.
Cleveland’s testimony was corroborated by Correia’s credit card statements and a stack of receipts from their travels.
Prosecutors allege Correia bankrolled his lavish lifestyle with money he stole from people who invested in SnoOwl, a smartphone app he helped create in 2013, and hundreds of thousands of dollars he extorted from marijuana vendors while he was mayor from 2016 to 2019.
When asked how she thought Correia could afford his expensive lifestyle, Cleveland said she knew he was only earning about $17,000 annually during his two years as a city councilor before becoming mayor, but he told her that an app he helped develop as a college student had sold “for a few million.” Other witnesses said the app was never sold for a profit.
Witness says mayor collected $75,000 bribe in his city SUV
Fall River businessman Charles Saliby testified that in July 2018 he placed a $75,000 cash bribe directly into Correia’s hands as they sat in the mayor’s city-issued SUV outside of the Saliby family’s store, Guimond Farms. Correia then handed him a non-opposition letter he had signed, verifying that the city didn’t oppose his plan to open a retail marijuana dispensary next to the store. The letter was required by the state for all applicants seeking a dispensary license.
Saliby said Correia initially demanded a $250,000 payment, but ultimately agreed to $150,000, to be paid in two installments. He said the mayor had come to his store with his chief of staff, Genoveva Andrade, offering his support for the dispensary in exchange for the payoff. When they left after arranging the deal, Saliby said Andrade turned to him and said, “You’re family now.”
Asked why he was willing to pay the bribe, Saliby said he “feared that the mayor would retaliate against my family and my business.” Saliby and other marijuana vendors who testified at the trial were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony.
“Fed money” in the shed
Correia’s aide and longtime friend, Hildegar Camara, testified that Correia was “very stressed out” in 2018 because he was facing mounting legal bills as the FBI investigated his handling of investor funds in SnoOwl. He said Correia asked him to have a marijuana vendor donate $100,000 to his legal defense fund in exchange for a non-opposition letter. Camara acknowledged the money was a bribe.
“I was spooked,” said Camara, recounting how a middleman, Tony Costa, collected the bribe from the marijuana vendor and left it in an envelope, tucked under a paint can in a shed behind Camara’s house. Camara said Correia appeared “nonchalant” when he came to collect it, but Camara insisted they give it back. Camara told jurors he was afraid it was “fed money” planted by investigators and dropped it back at Costa’s house after wiping down the envelope and cash of fingerprints.
Camara said he believed the money was returned to the marijuana vendor. But Costa testified that he “played both sides” and kept the money for himself. Costa said he felt the money was owed to him because he had lost his $50,000 investment in SnoOwl in 2014.
But Costa testified that in 2016, he collected a $100,000 bribe for Correia from another businessman seeking to open a marijuana dispensary. In that case, Costa said he gave $80,000 to Correia, who allowed him to keep a cut of $20,000. But during cross examination, Costa acknowledged that he had told the grand jury that he paid Correia $70,000 and kept $30,000 for himself.
“Is it hard to remember?” Correia’s attorney, Kevin Reddington, asked.
Camara and Costa both pleaded guilty to extortion-related charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a recommendation of leniency. They have yet to be sentenced.
Rhode Island businessman Stephen Miller testified that he was so impressed when he met Correia in July 2013 during a chance encounter at a Fall River bar that he invested $50,000 in his company, SnoOwl. Correia was 21 at the time, running for City Council, and boasted that he was supporting himself with $250,000 he and a friend had made selling another app they had developed in college, Miller told jurors.
“I thought he was like a boy wonder,” Miller said. “I thought he was the next greatest thing.”
Miller, who later invested another $20,000 in SnoOwl, said Correia told him all of his money would go toward developing the app.
Miller said he lost all his money and learned in 2017 that Correia was under investigation for allegedly using investor money to pay for trips, expensive dinners, clothing, jewelry, a personal trainer, a Mercedes, and student loans and credit card debt.
A paper trail
IRS Special Agent Sandra Lemanski took the stand twice during the trial and showed jurors detailed financial documents and telephone records that bolstered testimony about Correia’s lavish spending and showed he traded phone calls and texts with some of the middlemen and marijuana vendors who testified for the government.
Between 2013 and 2015, seven investors contributed more than $358,000 to SnoOwl, Lemanski said. By her calculations, Correia spent 64 percent of it for personal purposes, including $37,282 to pay down student loans and credit cards; $31,780 for travel and transportation; $27,000 for hotels; $25,121 for dining; and $18,655 for clothing, grooming, jewelry, and health care products.