Jasiel F. Correia II had all the makings of a rising Democratic star.
While still an undergraduate at Providence College, he landed a seat on the city council in his hometown of Fall River, Mass., in 2013, and began attending meetings in between his political science classes. Fall River had been abandoned long ago by textile manufacturers, leaving behind empty mills and crumbling smokestacks that most people speed by on their way to Cape Cod. Highlighting his experience as the founder of a tech start-up, Correia made the case that he could persuade young people to relocate to the city and start businesses there. At 23, he beat out a better-funded incumbent to become the city’s youngest-ever mayor.
Then, early Thursday morning, federal agents arrested Correia on charges that he stole almost a quarter of a million dollars from seven people who had invested in his start-up, and spent the money on adult entertainment, airfare, a dating service, designer clothes, hotels, jewelry, trips to casinos and a Mercedes-Benz. Hours later, he pleaded not guilty to 13 counts of wire and tax fraud.
It was, he told reporters, “not my best Thursday.”
Correia had previously touted his experience as the founder of a start-up named SnoOwl, a smartphone app that connected businesses with consumers. It was evidence that, despite his age, he had the leadership skills necessary to run the city. Now 26, Correia is accused of using the company as his “personal ATM” and defrauding investors who were unwittingly funding his lavish lifestyle and nascent political career. In an indictment that was unsealed Thursday, prosecutors allege that Correia stole more than $231,000, which he also allegedly used to pay off his student loans, fund his political campaigns and make charitable donations in his name.
The sum, as the Boston Globe reported, amounts to about six times the median household income in Fall River.
Prosecutors allege that Correia routinely lied to potential investors, telling them that he had previously sold another smartphone app for a large profit. Within a month of receiving his first investor’s $50,000 check in January 2013, the indictment says, Correia bought a black 2011 Mercedes C300 sport sedan. For the next two years, prosecutors allege, he would go on to use investors’ money to pay off his credit cards, stay at luxury hotels and spend tens of thousands of dollars on his then-girlfriend.
In 2015, as the company foundered, Correia announced that he would run for mayor. After winning the race, he became “increasingly unresponsive” to investors and software developers, the indictment says. He also allegedly filed fraudulent tax returns to conceal the scheme from the IRS.
“To date, no SnoOwl investor has received any return or interest on his investment, and the business of SnoOwl is essentially worthless,” prosecutors concluded.
“Today’s arrest is a shock to many in the city, which has prided itself on a tradition of honest government, hard work and public service,” FBI agent Hank Shaw said at a news conference Thursday. “Yet its mayor was far from honest, selling out his friends and associates for his own personal gain.”
Correia has denied all of the allegations and said he will “absolutely not” resign.
“You will see when we have a trial that I will be vindicated,” he told reporters after being released on bond on Thursday.
Correia grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Portuguese bakeries and fish markets selling salt cod. Like many in Fall River, a city of almost 90,000 people, his parents came from small Portuguese-speaking islands in the Atlantic. His father had immigrated from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde; his mother from the Azores. Although immigrants from Cape Verde have been living in southeastern Massachusetts since the 19th century, drawn first by jobs in the whaling industry and then by the textile mills, none had risen through the city’s political ranks.
Correia became the first to break that barrier in November 2015 after his two-year stint on the city council. Some observers credited his ascension to an only-in-Fall River moment. In August 2014, a petition was circulating to recall then-Mayor William Flanagan. Despite being perceived as an ally by the mayor’s chief of staff, Correia signed it. A few days later, Flanagan asked Correia to meet him down by the waterfront after midnight. Correia later told police that during their meeting, the mayor had pulled out a gun from the center console of his SUV, placed it on the dashboard and asked him to remove his name from the petition. Flanagan denied the allegations and prosecutors declined to charge him, but the recall effort was successful and Correia, whom investigators had found credible, was suddenly on the map.
In January 2016, a few weeks after celebrating his 24th birthday, Correia moved into the mayor’s office. His youth and enthusiasm brought new attention to a city that had long been ignored. “In struggling mill city, 24-year-old mayor seeks turnaround,” read an Associated Press headline that appeared in papers nationwide. A reporter from WBUR’s Morning Edition spent a day driving around downtown Fall River in Correia’s black C-class Mercedes as the young mayor pointed out once-grand buildings that had been boarded up and abandoned, and talked about his plans to persuade millennials to move back.
In Fall River, there was little else to be optimistic about. The streets were pitted with potholes, once-stately Victorians had fallen into decline, and the depressed city had been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. In 2014, FBI crime statistics showed that Fall River was the second-most violent city in Massachusetts. But Correia described the city as full of potential, with cheap rent and close proximity to Providence and Boston.
“I am Fall River’s biggest cheerleader,” he told the Providence Journal in 2016. “I am Fall River’s salesman.”
In October 2016, Amazon opened a 1.3 million-square-foot distribution center in the city. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post). The development was heralded locally as a major event: It was the first time in decades that anyone could remember a major corporation moving to the city, rather than leaving it. Correia was reelected with a 20-point margin the following November.
When he took office, Fall River’s motto was “We’ll try.” In 2017, he announced a new slogan: “Make it here.”
Correia now joins the list of mayors of struggling postindustrial New England cities who have faced criminal charges while in office. Some of the more notable examples include former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, who was celebrated as the city’s first Italian American mayor before being charged with racketeering and extortion in 2001, and Mayor Joe Ganim of Bridgeport, Conn., who won reelection in 2015 after spending six years in prison on federal corruption charges from his first stint as mayor. They had been elected at young ages, and, at the time of their respective charges, both fiercely declared their innocence, as does Correia.
Dressed in a navy blue suit and red tie, Correia stood in the rain as he was swarmed by reporters outside the federal courthouse in Boston on Thursday.
“If you look at my track record as mayor, all you’ll see is positive results,” he said over the sound of clicking camera shutters. “I was elected and reelected with 65 percent of the vote in Fall River. And if you look at those bogus charges, or whatever they’re called, there’s not a single thing . . . that the U.S. attorney’s office said in their 19-page indictment that I did wrong as mayor of the city of Fall River.”
Before walking away, he added: “I love the city of Fall River.”
Correction: This article previously stated that an Amazon warehouse in Fall River opened in March 2017. It opened in October 2016.
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