Former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis has pleaded not guilty to federal money laundering and extortion charges in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In U.S. District Court Thursday, Buffis pleaded not guilty to one count of extortion and three counts of money laundering. He was indicted by a federal grand jury earlier this month. His attorney, Lori Levinson, has maintained her client’s innocence.
“He does have a legitimate defense to the charges and we believe after all is said and done he will be exonerated," said Levinson.
Buffis was released on personal recognizance in an agreement between the prosecution and the defense. However, an uninsured bond of $100,000 was set by the court, according to The Berkshire Eagle. The former chief would be forced to pay that bond if he either fails to show up in court, or violates any of his pre-trial conditions.
Levinson waived her client’s right to a speedy trial because of the extensive amount of discovery documents involved in his case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Breslow told the court that under federal guidelines, Buffis could serve between 41 and 51 months in federal prison if convicted. In February 2012, Buffis allegedly forced the couple who owns the Laurel Inn to make donations to a toy fund in an agreement that the chief would drop prostitution-related charges against them.
“There was voluntary exchange," Levinson said. "He did not coerce them.”
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, the couple, Tara Viola and Thomas Fusco, gave $4,000 to the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund, which was controlled by Buffis. Once the money had been deposited, Buffis withdrew $3,990 and placed it into a joint personal bank account for his own use.
In a motion, Breslow wrote that "The government is examining whether Buffis also diverted tens of thousands of dollars from the toy fund for a period of approximately ten years.” Levinson says that doesn’t involve the current charges. After the 34-year veteran of the department was indicted on the federal charges, Lee Town Administrator Bob Nason suspended him without pay or benefits on August 9. Eleven days later, the town’s Board of Selectmen unanimously approved Nason’s recommendation to fire Buffis, saying he misappropriated more than $5,000 in town funds to pay for his family’s cell phones and their service. Stunned by the decision on this separate issue, Levinson claims Buffis reached a verbal agreement with Nason when he became chief that the town would pay for the plan as part of his compensation package. She says the bills clearly showed there were four lines on the plan, but they were still approved and paid for by the town for 18 months.
“He did ask if the town would be picking up his cell phone plan and he was told yes, switch it over to the town and we will take care of it," said Levinson.
Nason denied having such talks.
“There was never, ever a discussion about his plan," Nason said. "I don’t even remember talking about cell phones period with him. It is outrageous in my view to think anybody in this day and age would have the town or a company pay for their entire family’s cell phones.”
Levinson says she and Buffis are currently working toward filing a complaint to the town regarding her client’s firing.
“Alleging violations of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law," she said. "We also believe there is basis for civil lawsuit having to do with Chief Buffis’ employment contract with the town which requires 120 days notice of termination.”
Town counsel Jeremia Pollard says the meeting was announced and that Buffis’ contract allows for an alternate payout of 120 days in exchange for termination.
“The town is going to examine whether moneys that it feels are owed to the town for improper expropriation for using the cell phones for personal use," Pollard said. "Whether we are going to take the money off of that is up to the board and I’m going to recommend that they do that.”
If the decision is upheld, the Board of Selectmen will create a committee to search for a new police chief. Ronald Glidden, who held the position for 17 years before Buffis, is serving as the interim chief. A status hearing for the federal charges is scheduled for December 4.