The police chief in Lee, Massachusetts finds himself on the wrong side of the law. A federal grand jury has indicted Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis for extortion and money laundering involving owners of a local inn. 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. 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 quickly withdrew $3,990 and deposited it into a joint personal bank account.
Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless says the indictment shows his office’s commitment to maintain the law, even if law enforcement officials are involved.
“For the citizens, I think that this demonstrates that we are going to follow up on wrongdoing regardless of who it involves. We are prepared to protect them," said Capeless.
In a statement, Lee Town Administrator Bob Nason says he has suspended Buffis without pay or benefits and has appointed Ronald Glidden to serve as temporary police chief. He also announced the Select Board will meet August 20 to decide if Buffis will continue to be suspended without pay or benefits until the criminal proceedings brought against him are sorted out.
Capeless says his office will maintain its working relationship with the Lee Police Department.
“As I’ve said before, this only involves Chief Buffis," he said. "This is not about the police department itself or any other member. We’re going to continue to work probably with other members of the police department and keeping that community safe.”
Buffis’ Attorney Lori Levinson says her client has done nothing wrong.
“He does have a legitimate defense to the charges and we believe after all is said and done he will be exonerated," said Levinson.
Meanwhile, the nearby town of Egremont is deciding how to handle the leadership of its police department. Former police chief of 15 years Reena Bucknell was placed on administrative leave in the beginning of the year after a vote of no confidence from the department’s officers. The vote was taken after a consultant report by Pomeroy Resources raised questions about Bucknell’s handling of department funds, equipment, and high officer turnover. Bucknell has asked to return to the force in some capacity for the remainder of the year.
Robert Jackall is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Williams College. He says law enforcement scandals like these can damage the public’s view of police officers.
“People don’t seem to be able to distinguish between good cops and bad cops when a corruption scandal engulfs a department," Jackall said. "They immediately rush to tar all officers.”
If convicted, Lee’s Buffis faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the counts followed by five years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. Buffis will be summoned to appear in court for his initial appearance.
People who have donated cash or toys or applied to the Edward J. Lalilberte Toy Fund are asked to contact the FBI’s Springfield office at (413) 732-0159.