Fall River’s lightning rod

Fall River’s lightning rod

Mayor Jasiel Correia should be riding high, but these are trying times

Photographs by Meghan Moore 

FALL RIVER MAYOR Jasiel Correia’s voice was scratchy and raw. It was March 13, the day after yet another nor’easter, and he had spent a good part of the day, like many a mayor across the state, dealing with snow removal complaints and public safety issues. And then, probably unlike most mayors, he climbed into the cab of a burly Ford 350 truck equipped with a plow and started clearing the streets himself, alongside his public works guys. He was up until 2 a.m.

This is Correia’s post-snowstorm routine. If it’s a political stunt, it’s one that carries genuine risks. “The only thing I’m always worried about is that I’m gonna, God forbid, hit somebody’s car. That would just be the worst,” he rasped. “You know, ‘Mayor hits somebody’s vehicle’—that’s not a good story.”

This is sort of how Correia rolls. His willingness to roll up his sleeves, to eschew the buttoned-up conventions of public office, may help explain how two years ago, at age 23, Correia vaulted himself into the corner office, becoming the youngest mayor in Fall River history—and possibly the youngest in the country for a city of Fall River’s size (about 90,000). Correia handily won reelection last November, beating his opponent by more than 20 points.

There are other reasons that Fall River’s famously fickle voters—they were the first, in 2014, to recall a mayor in Massachusetts—might be content keeping Correia around. City finances have stabilized two years running, and the Moody’s bond rating agency has removed its negative outlook for the city. In a city where efforts to revive the economy, hobbled since the collapse of the textile industry, have long seemed driven by desperation—there were once plans to put a casino in what was supposed to be a biotechnology park—there are real signs of progress.

Nearly 2,000 people have found work at the Amazon distribution center, a 1.3 million-square-foot facility that opened last year at the complex, now dubbed the SouthCoast Life Science and Technology Park. Most significantly, after decades of discussion and planning, the state finally appears to be moving forward with the South Coast rail extension, connecting Fall River and New Bedford to Boston.

And yet, for all the reasons he should be riding high, for all his outward enthusiasm, these are trying times for Jasiel Correia. He’s evicted the city’s economic development agency from city hall and sued it for not paying rent, and the agency now seems intent on operating as its own sovereign fiefdom. In a roundabout way, the case relates to a much more ominous threat hanging over Correia: a federal indictment. For the past year, the FBI has conducted a wide-ranging investigation of Correia, based on allegations that he, among other things, misused US Housing and Urban Development funds and used his position to reward investors in a tech company he started. If the allegations are to be believed, it would seem that Correia’s precocity extends to corruption and political gamesmanship. Or it could be that Correia, in a city where politics seems like a never-ending grudge match, crossed the wrong people.

GUN ON THE DASHBOARD

On August 15, 2014, Correia received an urgent call from then-mayor William Flanagan, who was the target of a recall campaign. Correia was eight months into his first term on the Fall River City Council. He was also running a business incubator called 1zero4, a reference to the address of the funky downtown mill where it was located. And he was also busy working on his own startup, an app called SnoOwl that aimed to help local businesses target social media posts to would-be customers.

It was after midnight when Correia met the mayor near the waterfront and got into his SUV, where he was surprised to find one of the mayor’s right-hand men sitting in the back seat. Flanagan was not pleased that Correia had signed the recall petition. At some point, Correia would later claim, Flanagan put his gun on the dashboard in what Correia viewed as a not-so-subtle threat. (A special prosecutor’s report would later conclude that Correia’s account of the incident was “credible,” while those of the mayor and his associates, who maintained a gun was never intentionally displayed, were not.)

View of the Braga Bridge that spans the Taunton River and connects Fall River with Somerset.

Signing the recall petition as a freshman city councilor was gutsy; so was going public with his account of his encounter with Flanagan. An even gutsier move followed. Correia took on the winner of the recall election: Sam Sutter, a no-nonsense former Bristol County district attorney.

Sutter, who was 63 at the time, wasn’t exactly smitten with the political and entrepreneurial wunderkind. During a debate ahead of the 2015 election, the incumbent mayor seemed to revert back to prosecutor mode, suggesting that SnoOwl could very well be fraudulent.

“Where’s the beef? Produce the proof. Answer this question: Have you given these investors—because you have not given them any return on their investment—promissory notes, large promissory notes, Mr. Correia?” Sutter asked, looking him dead-on and mispronouncing his name as “Korea.”

A narrow majority of voters preferred to take a chance on the fresh-faced Correia. From the beginning, the self-styled entrepreneur made reviving the economy a priority. “We will take concrete steps to actively market and develop our city,” Correia said at his swearing-in. “As we reorganize Government Center, each department will be charged with a specific focus on economic development.”

One of Correia’s first initiatives was to extend a $25,000 grant to a niche apparel manufacturer, Good Clothing, to help it set up shop in Fall River. As it happened, the company moved into the same mill where Correia had his startup and incubator. About a year later federal agents would pay a visit to the building.

THE FBI INVESTIGATION

From the windows of Kenneth Fiola’s office you can see Fall River’s Government Center, where for decades the agency he heads, the Fall River Office of Economic Development, had its offices on the sixth floor, down the hall from the mayor. Until, that is, Correia gave them the boot last June.

Fiola’s new digs would seem to be an improvement over Government Center, a brutalist edifice that has aged even worse than Boston’s. His office, which is modern and spacious and opens into a conference room, is on the top floor of a rehabbed former department store that the agency owns and leases. As exiles go, it’s not bad.

Fiola was barely out of college in 1986 when he started at the economic development office, a nonprofit controlled by a 30-member board of directors that had until recently received a substantial portion of its staffing budget from the city. As executive vice president, Fiola has led the agency for more than three decades, spanning the terms of some nine mayors. “It’s always been my personal position we don’t get involved in mayoral politics,” Fiola says.

This remove from the tumult of city politics, in Fiola’s view, has allowed his nonprofit to shepherd years-long projects to fruition, such as the Amazon facility, the SouthCoast Marketplace—a massive retail complex anchored by a Market Basket—and the removal of the tangle of ramps off Route 79, which has helped connect the city’s downtown to a waterfront where the detritus of industry has steadily given way to a pier and string of maritime parks.

Fiola, a big man with a deep gravelly voice—he went to Boston University on a basketball scholarship—insists he has no personal animus toward the mayor. He was there when Correia launched his business incubator a few years earlier. “I thought he was a bright, articulate young individual who was the type of person who could lead the city forward, in terms of fresh ideas, fresh thinking,” he says.

Fiola traces the breakdown in their relationship to a day in mid-March 2017, when he says the mayor informed him, during an encounter at city hall, that he was being investigated by the FBI.

“He asked what I thought he should do. I said it’s very simple. If you didn’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. If you did, you should think about resigning,” Fiola says. “I said you’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you. It might not stop the investigation, but it will keep you out of the limelight.”

Soon thereafter, Fiola says, an FBI agent and a HUD investigator paid him a visit.

“I was surprised they came to visit me. The fact they were asking about SnoOwl—I didn’t know anything about SnoOwl,” he says. “I think the first thing I asked was if I was the subject of an investigation. They said I wasn’t. That sort of calmed my concern.”

The investigators also wanted to discuss the grant to the clothing maker and a city marketing campaign. (Their concern about the campaign may have been the possibility it was funded through HUD block grants, which can’t be used for marketing purposes.)

Correia suspected Fiola himself was responsible for bringing in the feds and leaking the information to the press, and this, in Fiola’s view, set Correia on the war path. Fiola says the mayor hastily assembled a plan to defund the Fall River Office of Economic Development, to sever its administrative contract with the Fall River Redevelopment Authority, and to create a city office of economic development and tourism. The city council and the redevelopment authority both rejected the plans in short order. Correia also insisted that the Fall River Office of Economic Development owed the city more than $113,000 for three years of unpaid rent at Government Center. (The agency had previously paid nearly $38,000 a year for rent under a license agreement that had lapsed in 2014.)

All of this culminated in an unusually dramatic meeting of the economic development office board on April 27, 2017. With Correia looking on, board president Frank Marchione read from a lengthy statement: “On the most serious note, the executive committee has been informed by a staff member, with firsthand knowledge, that there is an ongoing FBI and HUD investigation within the city. The investigation is focused on SnoOwl, and on HUD-directed funds for a business grant and the City of Fall River branding campaign.”

That staff member, of course, was Fiola.

WE’LL TRY

There is scarcely a detail of Fiola’s account that Correia does not dispute, starting with the claim that he informed him about the FBI investigation. “It’s mind boggling to me why I would tell someone who I really don’t have any relationship with,” he says. “I didn’t tell my friends, my confidants, but I tell Ken Fiola?”

One can almost see Correia’s mind boggling as he says this, sitting in his office at Government Center, where he prefers to sit at a conference table with a laptop rather than behind the stately desk perched in front of the corner windows. Correia is preternaturally poised, and his voice is crisp and confident as ever, but there’s an undercurrent of agitation. Considering that over the past year he’s regularly heard from close friends and aquaintances who were questioned by the FBI, including, he says, the owner of a little coffee shop he likes to frequent, the angst is perhaps understandable. Lawyers’ bills have depleted his campaign account—and his own, to the point, he says, that he’s basically doing the job of mayor for free. He’s set up a legal defense fund.

From Correia’s perspective, Ken Fiola had long been wary of him stepping on his turf. The mayor had signaled his intention to shake up economic development from his first moves in office. There was the grant to Good Clothing, which Fiola’s economic development agency only later incorporated into a formal program. Six months later, the mayor’s office began reaching out to consultants for the campaign to rebrand and market Fall River. A first priority was replacing its sadly humble motto, “We’ll try.”

Correia wasn’t very interested in having Fiola and his economic development office involved in the effort. “How do you run economic development for 30 years and you keep the same slogan, ‘We’ll try?’ You never propose to the mayor over the years, ‘Hey we should try to change the slogan’?” Correia says. “He [Fiola] needed to be challenged. The guy was in the same position for 30 years, 30 years. And what did he have to show for himself? Fall River had its decline over that last 30-year period.”

Correia had sought to fund the $100,000 marketing campaign primarily out of the city budget, but he did ask Fiola’s economic development agency to pony up $10,000 to fund the February 1 launch at city hall, where the new slogan—Make it here—was unveiled. Fiola initially resisted but went along after, according to him, the city agreed to up his agency’s allocation from its Community Development Agency, which distributes HUD block grants. (Correia disputes this.)

Over its history, Fiola’s economic development agency has had a hand in real estate and infrastructure projects involving billions of dollars in public and private investment. And yet, when the feds came calling, they were only interested in discussing a $25,000 business grant and a $10,000 launch for a marketing campaign—initiatives of the mayor in which Fiola had either a secondary or reluctant role.

From Correia’s perspective, it’s easy to connect the dots: “Anytime something works, it’s all Ken’s idea. When it’s not Ken’s idea, it’s a federal investigation.”

INSIDE TRACK FOREVER

Since Fiola’s agency revealed the investigation, Correia has broadened his critique of the organization. He maintains it is on shaky financial ground and that the businessmen (they’re almost all men) that make up its board have vested interests in protecting Fiola, whose compensation tops $200,000—higher than anyone in city government.

“Ken Fiola has had the inside track forever. He’s helped his friends, his friends have helped him, and I’m not even accusing him of anything illegal,” Correia says. “But there’s no question that the organization built foot soldiers around them to protect the inner workings of that organization. When somebody tried to shake it up, myself, they decide to go nuclear.”

Correia can go on about the “incestuous” relationships among the organization’s  power brokers. By way of example, he points out that Marchione, the board president, bought a property next to the slated location for the South Coast rail station. The Fall River Office of Economic Development has advocated for the site, while Correia wants the state Department of Transportation to prioritize a second station on the waterfront that’s much closer to downtown.

Correia also notes that multiple members of Fiola’s board are big campaign donors to Fiola’s wife, state Rep. Carole Fiola. (Some of them have also contributed to Correia’s campaign, albeit in lesser quantities.)

In March, Correia booted Rep. Fiola from a special committee providing input on the plan to build a new $260 million high school, which has been the main event in local politics. Correia alleged that the representative had been bad mouthing him on Beacon Hill and saying the city was “in chaos.” A source who overheard the comments and who requested anonymity for fear of hurting an ongoing relationship with the lawmaker confirmed that Fiola had been saying negative things about the city and had referred to the FBI investigation.

Rep. Fiola says her priority has been bringing as many resources to Fall River as possible, but she noted that the FBI investigation of Correia had been well-publicized. “Have I ever been asked at the State House about it? Sure,” she says. “As I’ve said before, that’s not a good thing but not indicative at all of my work for Fall River. Fall River is much bigger than that.”

In the mayor’s estimation, the Fiolas are a potent force, with Ken undermining him in the city and his wife doing the same on Beacon Hill. “They are a team. You take on one, you take on two. They fancy themselves the Underwoods of Fall River,” says Correia, referring to the scheming couple on the show House of Cards.

SNOOWL

Carl Garcia, an affable, barrel-chested man, remembers meeting Correia a few years ago at a Bristol County Chamber of Commerce event. “They kept telling me there’s this kid I need to meet,” says Garcia, a past chairman of the chamber’s board.

Garcia, who owns a thriving auto body business with nearly 70 employees, had the same impression of Correia that a lot of people had in those days: this kid’s going places. He became an investor in SnoOwl, Correia’s startup.

That SnoOwl figures prominently in the FBI investigation is not a surprise. Sutter, the former district attorney, had alluded to shady dealings back in the 2015 election. The Herald News, the local paper, started investigating the company in July of 2016. After the Fall River Office of Economic Development disclosed the FBI investigation, the newspaper published a string of stories about Correia and SnoOwl. The gist of the rumors and allegations was that Correia had squandered investors’ money and, upon becoming mayor, used his office to make it up to some of them and settle company debts.

But Garcia challenges this narrative. The scuttlebutt was that Correia had awarded Garcia contracts to repair police vehicles. In fact, he’d been repairing police and other city vehicles since at least 2012, according to invoices he shared with CommonWealth.

“I do a limited amount of them, as I’ve always done. You bid them out,” Garcia says. “I probably do less work now with Jasiel Correia than I’ve done with former mayors.”

Carl Garcia lost money on his SnoOwl investment, but says he’s nonetheless proud of the job Correia is doing as mayor.

As far as the money he put into SnoOwl, Garcia didn’t view as it a formal investment so much as getting in on the ground floor of a promising concept—and also a way to help his daughter, who was fresh out of high school and interning with the company. “What he was describing has become what today companies like myself pay big money for,” Garcia says.

Garcia is a little miffed that the project went by the wayside as bigger opportunities opened up for Correia, but he shrugs it off has a trait of the millennial generation. “It’s definitely a different culture,” he says. “With that said, I’m also proud of him and what he has accomplished.”

The mill building where Correia launched his startup, SnoOwl.

It’s not clear why Good Clothing, the recipient of the $25,000 grant, got swept up in the FBI probe, but the fact that the company moved into the same mill as Correia, just as he was moving out, seemed to raise suspicions.

Jeanine Duquette, the company’s chief operating officer, insists that the grant was used exactly for the purpose it was intended. “The grant had to do with getting that space ready for manufacturing,” she says. By allowing the company to move its entire operation from Mashpee to Fall River, Good Clothing was able to create 20 full-time jobs.

Some of the allegations that have been aired against Correia are harder to verify. Another SnoOwl investor was appointed by Correia to an $84,000-a-year job as the head of a county workforce training organization. He had managerial experience, but also a six-year gap in employment preceding the hire, according to the Herald News. (Correia maintains the man was qualified and had taken a hiatus thanks to a windfall from the sale of a property.)

Among the handful of people who put money into SnoOwl there is at least one investor who’s gone public with his grievances. The Herald News reported that a local dentist, David Cabeceiras, sunk more than $80,000 into the company and never saw any return on his investment.

In a Facebook post in early March 2017, Cabeceiras’ son Jeff alleged that Correia had “stuck” his dad and tried to “buy me off” with a low-paying job, while finding ways to compensate other investors like Garcia. As proof that the allegations were legit, Cabeceiras then named the FBI agent he said was investigating the case. (Attempts to reach David and Jeff Cabeceiras were unsuccessful.)

Only days later, according to Fiola’s account, Correia confronted him and referenced the Facebook post. The Fall River Office of Economic Development spilled the beans about the investigation at its public meeting about six weeks later.

The revelations coincided with the start of election season, and, not surprisingly, Correia’s opponents made hay of them. During a debate, Correia’s challenger in the 2017 general election, Linda Pereira—a city councilor who had been hired by Sam Sutter as an investigator in the district attorney’s office—said: “Obviously I’m pretty truthful. I can tell you for all I’ve done, never once was I investigated by the FBI.”

As election day approached, rumors were rampant that an indictment would be coming down any day. It didn’t help that a grand jury was convened around this time to weigh the evidence against Correia, according to a source who testified. (A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office in Boston would not, per policy, confirm or deny any investigation into Correia.)

Since his decisive win in November, Correia’s critics have been more muted. Messages left with Pereira and leaders on the city council, with whom Correia had a fractious relationship leading up to the election, were not returned. The question lingers, who dropped a dime to the feds? Fiola insists he never reached out to the authorities or the press. Sutter, the former mayor and district attorney, declined to comment.

DUELING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT PLANS 

Correia acknowledges he may have made some missteps in his early days as an entrepreneur.  “To put it in perspective, when I started SnoOwl I was 19. The first investor came before I could drink,” he says. “It was no criminal enterprise. It was some young ambitious kids.”

While Correia maintains that the allegations against him were ginned up by political rivals, if an indictment does come down he says he’ll deal it. “I’ve consistently said if something wrong was done then that will come out, and if that comes out we’ll face the facts,” he says.

Meanwhile, Correia and Fiola, in their respective offices down the street from each other, continue to hatch their own economic development plans. The absurdity of the situation was underscored recently when both entities, unbeknownst to each other, applied for the same federal tax incentive program on behalf of the city.

The situation is upsetting to Robert Mellion, who until February was the president of the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce, which had attempted to broker a truce between the parties. “The fact that it’s gone on for almost two years is not good for Fall River,” he says.

Mellion thinks the city is poised for a genuine revival thanks to investments in recent years worth upwards of $700 million, for which he gives the Fall River Office of Economic Development a lot of credit.

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But Correia is “the ultimate authority, with a social contract with the voters of the city,” he says. “I think Jasiel has been spot-on with a lot of things, but sometimes he’s moved faster than the rest of the groups around him were prepared for.”

As far as Correia is concerned, there’s only room for one economic development sheriff in town. As he steadily gains appointments on the Fall River Redevelopment Authority, he hopes he will eventually be able to make it the city’s quasi-independent development agency, freezing out the Fall River Office of Economic Development. Correia is not one to back away from a fight. But it could be that he’s steadily learning to play the long game.