Elected at the age of 23 to serve as mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts, Jasiel Correia looked like a wunderkind. A tech entrepreneur who founded his own startup, Correia was the youngest-ever mayor of his hometown, the golden boy who promised to use his technological prowess and puckish energy to bring his aging town into the 21st century
Then it all came crashing down. In 2018, Correia was charged with various personal misdeeds, including tax and wire fraud, related to his tech company. A defiant Correia maintained his innocence and rejected calls for his resignation. Then, a second round of charges hit, this time alleging public corruption. Correia purportedly took over $600,000 in bribes from marijuana business license applicants—including one marijuana business owner who paid the Mayor $100,000 and promised him 2% of his future sales revenue in exchange for a lucrative operating permit. By the time Mayor Correia went to trial, he faced 24 separate criminal charges, and on May 14, 2021, the jury found him guilty of 21 of those 24 counts.
Mayor Correia’s downfall might seem like a relatively minor matter involving local corruption in one small city. (Such stories are, alas, all too common.) But this incident usefully highlights the corruption risks associated with devolving regulatory authority to local governments. While there are certainly virtues of giving local governments power over local affairs, we need to be clear-eyed about the dangers that local control can pose, particularly in the context of regulating lucrative industries like legal marijuana. The Fall River example highlights several such risks:
- First, local governments are less likely to attract much scrutiny from law enforcement, independent watchdog groups, or the media (especially given the decline in local newspapers). National and state governments are monitored more closely, and corruption in a national or state licensing agency can be big news. But when decisions are devolved to hundreds of small governments, each making separate though similar licensing decisions, it’s easier for corrupt officials to fly under the radar. Likewise, the devolution of power to localities makes it harder for state or national investigative agencies, like the FBI’s Public Corruption program or the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, to provide oversight. The sheer number of municipal governments overseen by these bodies makes the likelihood of any one city or town coming to their attention fairly low. Indeed, Correia’s misdeeds may only have come to light because investigators had taken in interest in his unrelated misdeeds (tax and wire fraud).
- Second, local governments are often smaller and less professionalized, with substantial power concentrated in a few people, or even a single person, rather than in a professional bureaucracy where many government officials might be involved in, or at least have the opportunity to scrutinize, a given regulatory decision. The Fall River case illustrates this: Under Massachusetts law, a marijuana business may not operate in a town without a “no opposition” letter from the local government, and in a small city like Fall River, the mayor essentially has the sole discretion whether to grant or withhold such a letter. And in small, close-knit groups, individuals are less likely to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. As a result, corruption is less likely to be identified or reported on the local level.
- Third, anticorruption norms, and norms of professionalism more generally, can play a key role in preventing corrupt political activity. However, these norms are inconsistent at the local level, varying widely across communities. It’s a hackneyed cliché that politics in certain states (like New Jersey) and cities (like Chicago) are dominated by corruption and bribery. And close interpersonal relationships between the small groups of politicians on a local stage can amplify and facilitate their misdeeds. (Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot structured her election campaign around this theme, arguing that her opponents were “all tied to the same broken Chicago machine” of corrupt gamesmanship.) In a political environment with more robust norms around transparency and accountability, Correia might not have been able to get away with normalizing his marijuana business bribery scheme among industry professionals.
- Fourth, small towns (or even larger cities) lack the resources to establish effective pro-integrity institutions (like ethics commissions or inspectors general) that would help identify and prevent misdeeds. Fall River, for example, does not seem to have much in the way of internal checks on government corruption, other than employing an auditor to review the municipality’s finances, and requiring that public officials complete state-mandated ethics training. While there are a number of additional steps that municipalities can take to prevent corruption, it is understandable that many cash-strapped local governments will prioritize other agenda items.
While Correia’s corruption played out on a small scale, the problems it represents are far from unique. Instead, Correia’s case highlights some of the concerns inherent in making important policy decisions on the local level. One way to deal with this problem, of course, would be to reverse the devolution of authority, at least to some extent. But when that is not possible or desirable, there may be ways to address some of these risk factors.
For example, state or national governments could provide municipalities with funds specifically earmarked for local-level ethics and integrity initiatives, or could invest more of resources in conducting regular random or targeted audits of municipal governments. Governments could also reform their regulatory systems to avoid vesting local officials with vast, unsupervised discretion. As Brydne Slattery noted in a previous post on this blog, the regulatory system for legal marijuana in most U.S. states is particularly bad in this regard. She recommends addressing this problem by requiring local officials to explicitly state the reasons behind a grant or denial of a license application, as well as any payments made by the applying business. But just trusting local officials to implement those changes on their own is insufficient; states that have legalized marijuana should also strengthen oversight of local licensing decisions by establishing and empowering state-level agencies, to which municipal governments would need to demonstrate that they have implemented the licensing criteria in a fair and unbiased manner. Proponents of devolving regulatory authority to local governments generally argue that such governments are closer to their people, and therefore more likely to be responsive to their particular needs and preferences. Devolution proponents also sometimes assert that local governments are more likely to be accountable, due to their comparatively close position to the electorate. But we cannot take that alleged accountability for granted, or assume that it will produce greater integrity. Indeed, devolving substantial regulatory authority to local officials likely heightens rather than ameliorates corruption risks, so any such devolution ought to be accompanied by effective policies designed to address the corruption risks associated with local government that were so vividly illustrated by Jasiel Correia in Fall River.
It is not only small U.S. towns that face the problem you write about so well here. Small countries do as well. Think Guatemala and Honduras. Citizens of neither can hope for a state or national government to swoop in with a task force and weed out the corrupt officials.
The solution tried in both was an international entity. Under pressure both from their own citizens and the international community, both governments agreed to a supranational body to deal with the corruption. In Guatemala’s case, the corrupt officials scuttled it, largely by persuading the Trump Administration and Senator Rubio that it was an agent of Russian influence (a falsehood amplified and perpetuated by Wall Street Journalist columnist Mary O’Grady). The Honduran agency, never as powerful as the Guatemalan one, has been defanged.
Now you know why Vice President Harris’ task is so daunting. What is the next move?