A former mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts has been found guilty of extortion related to bribes he accepted from marijuana business hopefuls, among other crimes. Jasiel Correia, who became the youngest ever mayor of Fall River when he was elected at the age of 23, had been accused of taking $600,000 in bribes. In return, Correia, now 29, provided non-opposition letters to people attempting to open legal Cannabis businesses in the city. The letters are an essential step in the process of obtaining a license to operate a marijuana-related business under Massachusetts state law.
While prosecutors argued that Correia cravenly took advantage of his position to extort money from would-be Cannabis businessmen – sometimes collecting bribes personally in a city-issued vehicle – some industry watchers criticized the outsized influence granted to local officials by the state’s legal marijuana law.
Under Massachusetts law, a Cannabis business must sign a “host community agreement” with the local government of the city in which it hopes to operate. These agreements must be completed before the business can apply for a license from the state. This unusual provision – unique to the Cannabis and gaming industries – gives local elected officials the power to block or fast-track would-be pot businesses. And while this dynamic may not often lead to extortion per se, advocates are concerned with the legal demands officials make of applicants, including donating to local charities, pledging their employees’ time to municipal functions and other “good faith” payments.
Such requests are generally not made of applicants seeking to open businesses outside of the marijuana industry. One Cannabis business advocacy group claimed that “legalized extortion is the norm,” when it comes to securing a pot-related operating license in Massachusetts.
In addition to the pay for play bribes he took from pot businesses, Correia was also charged with misusing investor funds from his smartphone app SnoOwl. He was found guilty on 21 of 24 counts of fraud, extortion and conspiracy. The jury returned its verdict after less than 24 hours of deliberation. The disgraced ex-mayor faces 20-year prison terms for both the wire fraud and extortion charges. His sentencing hearing will take place September 20.