Jasiel F. Correia II, the twice-indicted mayor of Fall River, said he plans on Tuesday to take a leave of absence from office and suspend his reelection campaign as he fights federal charges of extortion, bribery, and tax evasion.
In an interview, Correia, a 27-year-old Democrat first elected in 2015, continued to deny federal prosecutors’ allegations that he extorted local vendors hoping to open marijuana businesses and defrauded investors in his technology startup.
He said he plans to retain the title of mayor — and his $119,000 annual salary — until his term expires in January. But he said he will hand most of the mayor’s powers and day-to-day functions to the City Council president, Cliff Ponte, who would assume the title of acting mayor until the new mayor is elected in November and takes office in January.
Correia said he was making the decision to step away from his duties “so the city is not distracted by this assault on my career and my legacy.” He said he would make the announcement official in a statement to the press on Tuesday in Fall River.
“It’s certainly not an apology and it’s certainly not an admission of anything more or less than the fact that I’ve fulfilled my duties as mayor,” he said.
He pointedly refused to resign, saying it would not be fair to the voters who reelected him in March, when he narrowly survived a recall effort.
“There’s no reason for me to resign,” Correia said. “I believe I’ve done a good job, and I believe the people of Fall River think so, as well. I have not done anything wrong. However, I also recognize the city is bigger than Jasiel Correia.”
Correia’s unusual decision marks a dramatic shift from his posture over the last year, as he steadfastly rejected calls from Governor Charlie Baker, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who represents Fall River, and the City Council that he step down.
Last Thursday, a Bristol Superior Court judge rejected the council’s effort to temporarily oust Correia from office, an effort the mayor had fought.
The judge, Raffi N. Yessayan, ruled that the city charter does not grant the council “authority to temporarily remove a mayor charged with a felony from office. Instead, the charter requires the removal of an elected official convicted of a felony.”
Correia said that, even though he prevailed in the case, the decision prompted him to step away from his role, on his own terms. Doing so on Tuesday, he said, will “allow the accomplishments I have made to be in the spotlight . . . totally free of any distraction.”
Correia’s name will remain on the November ballot, even though he said would suspend his campaign. He finished a distant second in a three-way preliminary election in September to School Committee member Paul Coogan, who won 62 percent of the vote.
At 23 years old, Correia was the youngest mayor in Fall River history when elected in 2015, promising fresh energy for one of the state’s poorest cities. Supporters praise him for improving parks and reducing fees.
But his tenure has been marked by repeated allegations of brazen criminal wrongdoing.
Last October, federal prosecutors charged him with stealing more than $231,000 from investors in his tech startup and alleged that he spent the money on travel, a Mercedes-Benz, casinos, and adult entertainment.
Correia pleaded not guilty to the charges and returned to City Hall the morning after he appeared in federal court, proclaiming, “I’m back at work and doing the people’s business.”
In March, Correia survived an effort by residents to remove him from office, when he was recalled and then reelected on the same ballot. Even though 60 percent of voters backed the recall, a quirk in the city charter gave Correia the right to run as a candidate in the same election and he prevailed narrowly in the five-candidate contest.
Then, last month, federal prosecutors charged Correia in a second criminal case. This time, prosecutors alleged he extorted marijuana vendors for hundreds of thousands of dollars, shook down a building owner for cash and a Rolex watch, and demanded that his chief of staff give him half of her salary. Once again, he pleaded not guilty and returned to City Hall the morning after he appeared in federal court in Boston.
Because the charges involved allegations of official corruption related to Correia’s duties as mayor, they set in motion the council’s efforts to remove him from office. But as recently as last month, Correia told supporters that he would not step down or drop his reelection bid.
“The easy way out today is I resign or I take a leave of absence, and I withdraw from the race,” he said at a Sept. 25 campaign meeting, according to an audio recording of his remarks obtained by the Fall River Herald News. “That’s the easiest thing for me to do. The easiest thing. And believe me, a lot of people want me to do that. That’s not the right thing to do.”
Correia suggested to his supporters at the meeting that he planned to win reelection in November by drafting a write-in candidate to enter the race, splitting the opposition.
“It’s important because it makes it a multi-person race,” he said, according to the audio recording. “I think everybody can read between the lines — a multi-person race like the recall.”