Fall River Mayor: Allegations Are ‘Absolute Made-Up Gibberish’
FALL RIVER — Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan is speaking out about allegations brought up at a Monday city council meeting that his administration set up a 'pay to play' process for marijuana agreement applications.
Marijuana business hopefuls Joseph and Stephanie Merkt told the council during a citizen's input session that they were asked to pay a $50,000 application fee — and they alleged that the application referred to a city cannabis commission that doesn't exist.
They also claimed that after weeks of waiting for return phone calls, the mayor's office called back within the hour once the pair donated to his reelection campaign.
But Coogan answered many of the accusations on an appearance with Fall River Raw on Tuesday afternoon in which he called the statements "absolute made-up gibberish."
The mayor explained that much of the confusion around the Merkts' application was due to the fact that under disgraced former mayor Jasiel Correia, the city had no formal marijuana application process.
Correia was sentenced last month to a six-year prison term on embezzlement and corruption charges, in part due to his soliciting bribes from marijuana companies.
"I inherited this," Coogan told the group. "We had no process, nothing."
He described the Merkts as the city's "guinea pigs" for a new application process, stating that their business would have been the first marijuana host agreement issued since he took office.
The cannabis commission cited in the paperwork doesn't exist — yet — because it is still being created, Coogan said, although he named several officials that he hopes will be on the commission.
Not on the list is Fall River figure Ken Fiola, who would nonetheless be vetting candidates in the process, according to Coogan.
The mayor cited Fiola's business acumen and experience as the reason his name crops up on so many different projects in the city.
"In the economic world of Fall River, whether you like him or dislike Ken, he knows A to Z," he said. "If I had ten more Ken Fiolas, I'd be glad to spread the work out. But I don't have that."
As for the massive fees for marijuana applications, Coogan noted, officials took other Massachusetts cities and towns as a model.
"We're talking about $50,000 to companies like Sunnyside down on Weaver street, or Northeast Alternatives," he said. "Those are multi-million dollar companies."
"That money, that $50,000 goes directly into the city coffers with the tax that we get from it too," he added. "So this is a substantial investment in the city of Fall River."
As for Joseph Merkt, he said, "I'm gonna mail that guy back his lousy $200 for tickets he bought for my function. I'm not doing anything for money in this city."
Coogan told WBSM after the Fall River Raw appearance that allegations he would move the process along for any campaign donation were "ridiculous," joking "250 dollars? That ain't gonna improve my life a whit!"
But a lot of the blame for miscommunication with the Merkts Coogan placed squarely on City Council President and mayoral candidate Cliff Ponte's shoulders.
"They went from leaving our office on Facebook pictures, happy, to one phone call from the council president alleging some kind of illegal activity," Coogan said of the couple during his appearance.
He added that Ponte also called them to appear at last night's city council meeting, which he described as a "Cliff Ponte pep rally down at the council chambers."
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