LEE -- Police Chief Joseph Buffis was fired on Tuesday night -- not because he was under federal indictment on extortion and money laundering charges, but because town officials said he improperly billed the town for his personal cellphone use.
The Board of Selectmen, on the recommendation of Town Administrator Robert Nason, unanimously agreed to terminate Buffis' contract. The three-member panel said the embattled chief billed the town for nearly $5,000 over a two-year period to pay for his family cellphone plan with Verizon Wireless.
Buffis, 55, a 34-year veteran of the Lee Police Department -- the last two as chief -- didn't attend the meeting on the advice of his attorney Lori Levinson, who was in attendance. Afterward, the Great Barrington lawyer told reporters she would appeal her client's firing.
"I know there will be some recourse," she said. "I'm just not sure what it will be."
If the decision is upheld, the board plans to form a search committee to assist in the hiring of Buffis' permanent successor.
The Selectmen's decision came during a public hearing on Nason's decision earlier this month to relieve Buffis of his duties in the wake of the federal indictment.
RELATED STORY (Aug. 19) | Buffis' pay status on agenda: Board will listen to public before making decision
On Aug. 9, the administrator suspended Buffis without pay or benefits until the adjudication of his 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 Christmas charity he once managed.
On an interim basis, Nason appointed former Lee Police Chief Ronald Glidden -- the man Buffis succeeded in September 2011 -- to lead the department. Glidden had retired from the position after serving as chief for 17 years.
Residents who packed the hearing at Memorial Town Hall were stunned by the firing and the reason behind it. Selectmen Chairman Gordon Bailey told the gathering the cellphone issue came to light on Friday and Buffis was unable to clearly defend his actions to town officials prior to Tuesday's hearing.
"We got three different explanations and none of them were plausible," Bailey said.
Levinson countered that Nason agreed that the town would pay for Buffis' personal cellphone service, along with that of his wife and two grown children. She said it was part of her client's contract when he was named chief nearly two years ago.
PHOTO GALLERY | After Select Board meeting, Lee Police Chief Buffis fired
Nason denied such a deal was struck, saying he "never, ever had a discussion about his [cellphone] plan."
Several residents felt the flap over the cellphones was an excuse to remove Buffis from the force.
"This has become the ax to fire the chief," Beverly Trombley said. "That's baloney."
Others, like Kathy Griffin -- whose children grew up with Buffis' children -- felt the Selectmen had to make the difficult decision.
"I don't see where you had any other choice," Griffin said. "I like Joe; it's a dire shame."
Meanwhile, Buffis has yet to answer to the federal charges against him.
Authorities have said Buffis will be summonsed to appear in court, not arrested, but an arraignment date hasn't been set. If convicted, Buffis faces up to 20 years in federal prison on each count.
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 pending against them.
Federal prosecutors allege the chief then transferred that money to his own account, used it for personal expenses and lied to investigators about it.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233
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