Lee selectmen David Consolati and George Bailey sit and listen during Tuesday’s Select Board meeting.
Lee selectmen David Consolati and George Bailey sit and listen during Tuesday's Select Board meeting. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

LEE -- The search is on to replace ousted police chief Joseph Buffis, who was fired Tuesday night by town officials who claim he he improperly billed the town for his personal cellphone use.

By next week, Lee officials expect to form a citizens committee to assist Town Administrator Robert Nason and Board of Selectmen in hiring a new chief.

According to Selectmen Chairman Gordon Bailey, the ad hoc citizens panel would be similar to the one created two years ago that recommended Buffis for the job. At the time, Buffis was picked to replace Ronald Glidden, who retired after 17 years as Lee's police chief.

"We need to move toward healing the community and to keep people apprised of what's going on," Bailey said on Wednesday.

Town officials voted to terminate Buffis' contract at a public meeting Tuesday, saying the chief billed the town for nearly $5,000 over a two-year period for his family cellphone plan with Verizon Wireless. Buffis earned nearly $74,000 annually from the town.

Buffis' attorney, Lori Levinson, said Nason had agreed the town would pay for Buffis' personal cellphone service as part of being hired as chief in September 2011. But Nason emphatically denied the claim, as did town attorney Jeremia Pollard.

"We don't pay for any employee's family cellphones -- end of story, period," Pollard said during Tuesday's meeting.

The three-member board said its unanimous decision to fire Buffis -- on Nason's recommendation -- was unrelated to a federal indictment accusing the chief of extortion and money laundering.


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Levinson, and some residents felt the cellphone issue was an excuse to get rid of the chief. Buffis didn't attend the meeting on the advice of his lawyer. Afterward, Levinson said she expects to appeal her client's firing, but was unsure what recourse to take. The Eagle was unable to reach Levinson for comment on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Selectmen have officially hired Glidden at $1,250 per week to return as Lee's interim police chief until a permanent one is in place. On Aug. 9, Nason appointed Glidden as acting chief after suspending Buffis without pay until the adjudication of his federal case. The suspension came one day after a federal grand jury indicted Buffis on charges he allegedly extorted money from a Lee couple and funneled it through a holiday children's toy charity he once managed.

Meanwhile, the Selectmen have officially hired Glidden at $1,250 per week to return as Lee's interim police chief until a permanent one is in place. On Aug. 9, Nason appointed Glidden as acting chief after suspending Buffis without pay until the adjudication of his federal case. The suspension came one day after a federal grand jury indicted Buffis on charges he allegedly extorted money from a Lee couple and funneled it through a holiday children's toy charity he once managed.

Glidden, who lives on Cape Cod, but still maintains a residence in Lee, will spend at least two days a week in town overseeing the local police force and will be available the rest of the time via phone and email, according to Nason.

Bailey said it made sense to look outside the Lee Police Department for a temporary chief.

"[Glidden] hasn't been gone that long and is familiar with the policies and procedures of the department," Bailey said. "This also doesn't give one person from within an advantage if he or she applies for the job."

The Selectmen on Tuesday night approved the interim police chief contract.

Meanwhile, Buffis has yet to be arraigned on the federal charges against him. Federal prosecutors say Buffis will be summonsed to appear in court, not arrested, but an arraignment date hasn't been set.

Buffis, 55, faces up to 20 years in federal prison on each count if convicted of the charges.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, in February 2012, Buffis coerced a Lee couple to donate $4,000 to the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund that he controlled in exchange for a deal in which he would not go forward with prostitution related charges against them.

According to federal prosecutors, the chief then transferred that money to his own account, used it for personal expenses and lied to investigators about it.

Buffis made the couple, Tara Viola and Thomas Fusco, who own The Inn at Laurel Lake on Routes 7 and 20, sign an agreement that prevented the disclosure of the deal. When the prostitution charges didn't go forward, Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless and the state police looked into the matter before turning it over to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office, the DA said.

Capeless has said he plans to reinstate the prostitution-related charges against the couple.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.