SPRINGFIELD -- Former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis on Thursday pleaded not guilty to extortion and money laundering charges when he was arraigned in U.S. District Court.
Appearing before U.S. Magistrate Kenneth Neiman, Buffis pleaded not guilty to one count of extortion by wrongful use of fear and under color of official right and three counts of money laundering. He was indicted by a federal grand jury earlier this month.
Buffis allegedly co erced a Lee couple to donate $4,000 to the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund in February 2012 in exchange for him not going forward with pending prostitution-related charges against them, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Federal prosecutors allege that Buffis then transferred that money to his own account, used it for personal expenses, and lied to investigators about it.
On Thursday, through an agreement between the prosecution and the defense, Buffis was released on personal recognizance. However, an uninsured bond of $100,000 was set by the court. Buffis would be forced to pay that bond if he either fails to show up in court, or violates any of his pretrial conditions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Breslow told the court that his office agreed to the move because Buffis was not a flight risk, was summonsed into court and appeared at arraignment on his own.
The judge added a condition that Buffis report monthly to the probation department.
According to Breslow, the Pittsfield Police Department revoked Buffis' license to carry a handgun. He told the court that if Buffis was still in possession of any guns he could be considered "a danger to the public or himself." Buffis is a resident of Pittsfield.
Buffis' attorney, Lori Levin son of Great Barrington, said her client no longer had any guns in his possession.
A status hearing is scheduled for Dec. 4.
Through his attorney, Buffis waived his right to a speedy trial because of the extensive amount of discovery documents that are involved in his case. Breslow said he had already given the defense attorney computer disks containing "hundreds, if not thousands" of documents related to the investigation, with more to come. The federal investigation has already generated more than 10,000 pages of documents, according to court filings.
The investigation is "ongoing" and is examining "whether Buffis similarly di verted tens of thousands of dollars from the toy fund for a period of approximately 10 years," from 2002 to 2012, court papers show.
Both the criminal investigation and the court case are being handled at the federal level.
Breslow told the court that under federal guidelines Buffis could serve between 41 and 51 months in federal prison if convicted at trial and between 30 and 37 months if he changes his plea. The maximum sentences for these crimes are 20 years in prison on each count, plus a total of $750,000 in fines.
A good part of Thursday's hearing revolved around Buffis' assets and whether he can afford his own lawyer or will be granted one by the court. Levinson is currently retained by Buffis, but if the court decides he can't afford a lawyer, Levinson would by appointed by the court to handle the case.
Neiman determined that Buffis has $80,000 in equity in his home and "a significant amount of money" in a state retirement account. Levinson said Buffis is unable to access that money, but the judge wants more proof. He has taken the request for an appointed lawyer under advisement.
Buffis, 55, is a 34-year veteran of the Lee Police Depart ment who spent the last two years as chief.
The Lee Board of Selectmen fired Buffis from his job as police chief on Aug. 20 because town officials say he improperly billed the town for his personal cellphone use.
Following the arraignment, Levinson said Buffis was looking forward to fighting the charges and hoped to be restored to his position as Lee's chief of police.
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