BOSTON — Lawyers made their final pitch to jurors Monday in the fraud and corruption case against a once-celebrated young Massachusetts mayor, painting contrasting pictures of a shrewd con man driven by greed to line his own pockets or a victim of lies who never committed a crime.
After two weeks of testimony in Boston’s federal court, jurors will decide whether former Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, 29, is guilty of stealing from investors who backed his smartphone app and extorting tens of thousands of dollars from marijuana businesses who wanted to operate in the city.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Zach Hafer described Correia as a shameless liar who betrayed trusting investors and abused the power of his office in order to fund his lavish lifestyle and shower his then-girlfriend with expensive gifts.
“The evidence has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant would and did say anything to anyone to get what he wanted,” said Hafer, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. attorney’s office. “He convinced and persuaded people from all walks of life — from a trusting orthodontist to rough and tumble street guys — to do what he wanted. And what he wanted was money and what he wanted was power.”
Correia, who was elected mayor at the age of 23 in 2015, faces charges including wire fraud, extortion conspiracy and bribery. He has insisted since his 2018 arrest that he’s innocent and blamed the accusations on his political enemies. He never took the stand and the defense called just three witnesses.
Correia’s lawyer sought to sow doubt in prosecutors’ case by suggesting the government witnesses who pleaded guilty in the extortion scheme are lying in an effort to take Correia down and help themselves.
Kevin Reddington acknowledged that Correia used investor money for personal expenses, but said the former mayor was not “the brightest bulb” when it came to business and believed he could use the money as he deemed fit as long as he was working on the app.
“He thought mistakenly that this was money that was his because it was his job because he was producing and he was developing this app,” Reddington said.
Jurors will begin deliberating Tuesday.
Investors, some of whom had close personal relationships with Correia, described throughout the trial how the polished and well-spoken recent college graduate earned their trust by falsely claiming he had already successfully sold another start-up.
Overall, prosecutors say Correia took about two-thirds of almost $400,000 he received from investors for himself. Among the things prosecutors say he paid for with investor money: a helicopter tour of Newport, Rhode Island, a Mercedes, a $300 bottle of cologne, a $700 pair of Christian Louboutin shoes, and tens of thousands of dollars at luxury hotels, casinos and high-end restaurants.
In 2014, while serving as a Fall River city councilor, Correia told a student loan lender he was only making $17,000 a year and could not afford a payment. Shortly after, he spent $2,000 on plane tickets and more than $1,000 for two nights at an upscale Cape Cod resort, Hafer said.
Prosecutors showed jurors a clip from a 2015 debate during the race for mayor in which Correia pledged to spend taxpayer dollars wisely just like he said he had done in his business.
“He had no problem looking the voters right in the eye and telling them he spent his money wisely knowing it wasn’t true,” Hafer said. “Think about that — it tells you a lot,” he said.
A string of people who had sought to run marijuana businesses in Fall River testified about how Correia or middlemen negotiated bribes in exchange for letters of approval from the city they need in order to get a license. Prosecutors had one man, Charles Saliby, use fake money to show jurors how he says he stuffed $75,000 in cash in a metal box clipboard before handing it to Correia in the mayor’s city-issued vehicle.
Reddington suggested it made no sense that Correia — who knew at the time that “the FBI was all over him like a new suit” — would be so bold as to accept a bribe like that in public. Reddington urged jurors to carefully scrutinize the witness’ testimony and their motivations.
“Words are one thing. Evidence is quite another,” Reddington said.
Story by Alanna Durkin Richer.