SPRINGFIELD -- Former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis will receive a court-appointed attorney, but he is going to try to sell his home in Pittsfield to pay for it, according to court documents.

A federal court judge has granted Buffis' request to receive a court-appointed attorney, but he needs enough funds to reimburse the government for that expense.

Buffis is facing federal extortion and money laundering charges. It is alleged that he coerced a Lee couple into donating $4,000 to the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund in February 2012 in exchange for not going forward with pending prostitution charges against them.

Buffis, who managed the toy fund at the time, then transferred the money from the couple to his own account, used it for personal expenses and lied to investigators about it, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.

On Aug. 29, Buffis, 55, 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.

At his arraignment there was a drawn-out discussion on Buffis' finances in regard to whether he would be able to afford his own lawyer or receive a court-appointed attorney instead. Federal Court Judge Kenneth P. Neiman took the request under consideration.

On Monday, Neiman determined that Buffis can keep his current attorney, Great Barrington-based Lori H. Levinson, who will be paid by the federal government instead of her client. But the judge made his ruling "subject to the requirement" that Buffis pay for or reimburse the costs of Levinson's representation.

"To accomplish this end and as proposed by him, [Buffis] shall undertake immediate efforts to sell his residence so as to obtain access to its equity to meet this condition," wrote the judge.

Buffis is required to notify the probation department of his house-selling efforts, and any other changes in his financial condition. He is also required to notify the probation department if he finds another job.

The Lee Board of Selectmen fired Buffis on Aug. 20 because he allegedly improperly billed the town for his personal cellphone use.

Much of Buffis' financial information has been redacted from the court documents that have been made available to the public, but those papers show that Buffis owes $70,000 on a home equity loan.

Buffis does have a retirement account that contains an undisclosed amount of money, but that account has been frozen by the Berkshire County Retirement Board because the criminal case against him is related "to his police duties."

Buffis is a 34-year veteran of the Lee Police force who had spent the last two years as department chief.

He purchased his Elaine Drive home in January 2003 for $78,000, according to records on file with the Middle Berkshire Registry of Deeds in Pittsfield.

The three-bedroom, Colonial-style home is located on more than four acres. The value of the land and home is assessed by the city of Pittsfield at $311,200, according to the city assessor's office.

When Buffis was arraigned, Nieman determined that he had about $80,000 of equity in his home. The exact amount that Buffis is expected to pay for legal fees wasn't addressed in the judge's order. It may depend on the length of the case and other factors.

According to the U.S. Courts website, private attorneys like Levinson who are allowed to act as court-appointed lawyers are paid $125 per hour in noncapital cases. That fee includes both compensation for the attorney and office expenses.

Case maximums include $9,700 for trials that involve felony crimes. But those limits can be exceeded with court approval.

Buffis remains free on a $100,000 unsecured bond. If Buffis fails to either appear in court, or abide by his pre-trial conditions, he would be forced to pay that amount.

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.

A status hearing is scheduled for Dec. 4. A trial date has yet to be set.

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:
aamelinckx@berkshireeagle.com,
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On Twitter: @BE_TheAmelinckx