Buffis Acquitted Of Money Laundering And Fraud, Found Guilty Of Extortion
The former police chief of Lee, Massachusetts has been found not guilty on 10 of the 11 counts he was facing for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars from a toy fund he had control over.Joseph Buffis was on trial for stealing roughly $120,000 from the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund, which he controlled, over a 12-year period. The jury in Springfield federal court Tuesday morning acquitted him of money laundering and fraud, but found him guilty of extortion. State police investigators started digging after media reports surfaced about the Lee Police Department’s handling of a prostitution case in 2012. Although he was not the lead investigator, Buffis was accused of coercing the couple who ran the Laurel Lake Inn to donate $4,000 to the toy fund in February 2012. Prosecutors say Buffis ran up high personal debts. His latest annual salary as chief was $74,000, according to The Berkshire Eagle. In exchange for the money Buffis arranged for charges to be dropped against Tara Viola and Thomas Fusco. The extortion charge that Buffis was convicted of is related to his handling of this money.
“He feels very vindicated about the toy fund portion of the charges and very disappointed about the extortion verdict,” said Buffis' attorney Lori Levinson. “He did not extort those people. He does not believe he extorted those people. He always believed that it was a voluntary donation. He did not agree to not go forward with the criminal charges only if they donated that money. They were two separate transactions in his mind.”
Saying she did not expect the guilty verdict for extortion and was more frightened about the other counts, Levinson says Buffis plans to appeal the guilty verdict, which would happen after sentencing Oct. 19th, following the wedding of Buffis’ daughter. The maximum sentence for extortion is 20 years in prison with five years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
The prostitution charges against the couple have been reinstated and are pending.
Once the money had been deposited, Buffis withdrew $3,990 and placed it into a joint personal bank account for his own use, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Under cross examination after taking the stand in his own defense, Buffis admitted he lied to state investigators during a series of interviews about his handling of the toy fund and the $4,000 donation. Reporter Bob Dunn of The Berkshire Eagle has been in the court every day of the trial.
“That was really sort of the crux of the cross examination,” Dunn said. “Prosecutor Stephen Breslow just went through statements that Mr. Buffis gave during those interviews in 2012. There were at least three separate interviews. And [Buffis] just seemed to give inconsistent accounts of what happened to this $4,000 check or donation, however it’s characterized. And was put in a position where he was on the stand and had to admit that much of that information that he gave to investigators simply wasn’t true.”
Buffis says he would buy toys with his own money and then reimburse himself through the fund. Dunn says Levinson’s defense was that the former police chief is an incompetent bookkeeper.
“That he lives and exists in a cash-only world and would liquidate his paychecks into cash, bring that cash home and that’s how the family paid bills,” Dunn explained. “He was simply taking these donations in, turning them into cash and then making cash purchases for these gifts and then simply not keeping ledgers, receipts or any of that. But the defense really has been that he was reimbursing himself for purchases he made for this toy fund for gifts. After they were distributed he would pay himself back for those purchases.”
The jury deliberated for two full days and parts of two others. They appeared hung up on the extortion charge before closing for the day Monday only to return with that guilty verdict 40 minutes into Tuesday’s deliberations. Buffis faced 11 counts in all, each carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Dunn say s throughout his time on the stand, spread across two days, and his time in court, Buffis remained composed.
“His answers were matter of fact,” Dunn said. “Sometimes he would over answer and the prosecutor would remind him and sort of redirect him to keep his answers to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when it was a ‘yes or no’ question. But under the circumstances, he seemed very matter of fact even when he was admitting that he was making false statements.”
After Buffis was indicted on the federal charges, Lee Town Administrator Bob Nason suspended the 34-year veteran of the department without pay or benefits in August 2013. Eleven days later, the 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 cellphones and their service. Stunned by the decision on this separate issue at a select board meeting, Levinson claimed 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 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.”
Nason denied having such talks.
“There was never, ever a discussion about his plan. I don’t even remember talking about cellphones 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 cellphones.”
Buffis faces separate charges for mail fraud for allegedly using town money to pay for his and his family’s cellphone plans.
In December 2013, Lee hired Jeffrey Roosa, a 12-year veteran of the department, as the new chief. Buffis’ predecessor, Ronald Glidden, had returned to the force to serve as interim chief.