New England News
2:23 pm
Wed August 21, 2013

Lee Police Chief Fired, But Not on Federal Indictments

The Lee Board of Selectmen fired Joseph Buffis as the town's police chief after Town Administrator Robert Nason said he improperly used over $5,000 in town funds to pay for his family’s cell phones and service plan.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

The police chief in Lee has been fired, but not because of recent federal indictments.

“Absolutely stunned by the action of the board and the town tonight.”

That was attorney Lori Levinson’s reaction to the Board of Selectmen’s decision to terminate her client, Joseph Buffis, as Lee’s police chief. Tuesday night, the three-member board unanimously approved a recommendation by Town Administrator Robert Nason to fire Buffis saying he misappropriated more than $5,000 in town funds to pay for his family’s cell phones and their service. Levinson says 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 rejected 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.”

Lee residents who packed the overflowing Memorial Town Hall had thought they were going to have a chance to speak regarding whether or not Buffis would remain suspended without pay or benefits. Nason suspended the 34-year veteran of the department on August 9 after he was indicted on federal charges of money laundering and extortion 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 placed it into a joint personal bank account. Resident Beverly Trombley expressed her displeasure over the termination.

“Why don’t we wait for the trial?” shouted Trombley.

Selectmen Gordon Bailey answered.

"We don’t have to, because our decision tonight is not based on that," said Bailey forcefully.

While resident Alice Collins called the cell phone issue a witch hunt, Jack Shaughnessy also questioned the board’s motives.

“I find it awful funny that the cell issue just came up tonight," said Shaughnessy.

Town counsel Jeremia Pollard sternly clarified the town’s position.

“It’s unbelievable," Pollard said.  "It’s still a misappropriation of public funds. We don’t pay for people’s family phone plans in the town on the taxpayers back. Plan and simple, period!”

Selectman Patricia Carlino says the decision was made with a heavy heart. Resident Kathy Griffin respected the board’s action.

“I don’t see that you had any other choice than to do what you did," Griffin said.

Levinson says she plans to fight Buffis’ termination. If the decision is upheld, the Board of Selectman 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. Buffis’ arraignment in the federal case is scheduled for August 29.