SPRINGFIELD — Federal prosecutors have dropped a pending mail fraud charge against former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis, leaving that matter to the Berkshire Superior Court to take up in the future.
Meanwhile, Buffis still faces sentencing on a lone count of extortion for coercing a Lee couple facing solicitation charges into making a $4,000 contribution to a charity toy fund. Those charges were eventually dropped.
During a status hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court in Springfield, prosecutor Steven Breslow said the Berkshire District Attorney's office was now pursuing the mail fraud charge against Buffis. A spokesman for the DA said that office does not comment on ongoing investigations or court cases until a defendant is arraigned.
Buffis incurred the charge for allegedly adding cellphone lines for members of his family to the Town of Lee's account, racking up about $5,000 in bills.
That allegation prompted his firing by the Town of Lee in August 2013 after about two years as chief and 34 years total with the department.
The mail fraud charge was one of 12 filed against Buffis, including the extortion charge, but it was separated from the wire fraud and money laundering case regarding his handing of the toy fund's finances.
He was convicted on the extortion charge in June 2015 following an approximately three-week trial in U.S. District Court. He was acquitted on 10 other counts related to the toy fund allegations.
Buffis' sentencing, tentatively scheduled for March 3, may be delayed again as both legal teams and the Probation Department prepare their sentencing recommendations.
Sentencing initially was slated for last October, but it was pushed back until December and then most recently set for March.
During Thursday's status hearing, Breslow said he's preparing a memorandum illustrating what types of conduct Buffis was accused of, but not charged with, that he hopes to present for consideration for sentencing on the extortion charge.
Some of that uncharged conduct includes allegations Buffis stole approximately $31,000 from the bingo account of a Lee church between 1999 and 2007.
That evidence was barred from Buffis' trial by Judge Mark G. Mastroianni, who ruled it would be too prejudicial to be included with the other charges.
Levinson asked the judge for 14 days after Breslow's memo is filed to craft her response, which will likely include objections to some of that conduct being considered.
A representative of the Probation Department said it may need up to six weeks to prepare its sentencing recommendation, based on the final determination of what conduct can be considered.
Mastroianni said he wasn't necessarily comfortable with six weeks, but said he didn't want one side or the other to be prejudiced by accelerating that timeline.
The Probation Department said it may be able to prepare its recommendation sooner than the typical five or six weeks because much of the information it would normally use already has been gathered.
Some of that information, for example, would be a defendant's prior criminal record, which does not apply in Buffis' case.
Mastroianni, who acknowledged Buffis' sentencing date already has been pushed back several times at this point"for good reasons," said the uncharged conduct issue may lead to evidentiary hearings and oral arguments.
And the sentencing hearing itself, when it comes about, may be a multi-day affair.
"This is not going to be a one-day or one-hour sentencing," Mastroianni said.
The maximum penalty on the extortion charge is 20 years in prison, but Buffis' sentence is expected to be less than that.