PITTSFIELD - Former Lee police chief Joseph Buffis is facing new federal charges for allegedly pocketing more than $50,000 meant for Christmas gifts for underprivileged children.
Twelve indictments were issued by a federal grand jury Thursday charging Buffis, 56, of Pittsfield, with wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. The indictments superseded four earlier ones for extortion by wrongful use of fear and under color of official right and money laundering, to which Buffis had pleaded not guilty last August. He is scheduled to be arraigned on the new charges in U.S. District Court in Springfield on Wednesday before Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman.
From January 2007 through December 2011, according to federal prosecutors, Buffis diverted money from the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund for his personal use totaling just over $51,000, with "a substantial portion" benefiting himself and his family. During that period, only one needy family received any money. That was in 2009 when a family received a $250 check.
Checks written out to "cash" or to Buffis, meant for the toy fund, were allegedly deposited into accounts he shared with his wife and son.
He later lied to investigators about it, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Buffis solicited public donations on behalf of the toy fund, which he had sole control over, through notices on Lee Police Department letterhead sent to The Berkshire Eagle, which published the notices, according to court documents.
Law enforcement officials allege the notices were "materially fraudulent and false" since they failed to disclose that most of the donations were going to Buffis, and not the needy families the money was intended for.
Kevin Moran, regional vice president of news for New England Newspapers Inc., said federal investigators asked for, and The Eagle provided, copies of the Laliberte Toy Fund lists published during the time Buffis controlled the fund.
"The Eagle has a tradition of publishing annual charitable giving lists, and it has done so as a public service to our readers and the organizations raising the money," Moran said. "From this point on, however, The Eagle will apply a higher level of scrutiny by vetting the organizations that seek to have their charitable lists and notices published in our news columns."
Buffis was able to cover his tracks thanks to toys that were donated to the fund, giving him a reserve that could be given to needy families without his having to use the money in the toy fund, according to court papers.
Buffis is also facing charges for allegedly convincing the town of Lee to provide the police department in 2011 with four iPhones that he and his family used, instead of distributing them to the other police officers. Phone bills totaling more than $5,000 were then paid by the town in the belief the phones were being used by the department since Buffis hadn't disclosed that he had diverted the phones for the personal use of his family, according to court papers.
The Lee Board of Selectmen fired Buffis from his job as police chief on Aug. 20, 2013, citing these allegations. He was a 34-year veteran of the Lee Police Department and chief for nearly two years.
The federal investigation began after Buffis allegedly coerced a Lee couple facing prostitution charges into donating $4,000 to the toy fund and then pocketed the money. The couple, Tara Viola and Thomas Fusco, the owners of The Inn at Laurel Lake on Route 7 & 20, initially suggested making a $1,000 donation to a local dog shelter, but Buffis insisted they donate to the fund, according to court papers.
Their attorney, Elizabeth J. Quigley, has said her clients were victims in Buffis' scheme to extort money from them and at the time they believed the resolution was sanctioned by law enforcement. They are cooperating with the federal investigation, she told The Eagle.
The indictment alleges that on Jan. 19, 2012, following a month-long joint investigation by the Lee police department and the Berkshire County Drug Task Force, the Lee police sought criminal complaints against Viola and Fusco. Although neither were arrested at the time, Buffis informed the Eagle they had been charged with soliciting sexual favors for a fee, keeping a house of ill fame and conspiring to promote prostitution. The revelation caused the couple "emotional distress and resulted in lost business for the inn."
This differs from Eagle records that show it was another Lee police officer, and not Buffis, who provided the information to the Eagle. The story reported that charges were pending against the couple, not that they had been arrested.
When the charges didn't go forward against the couple, Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said he and the task force looked into what had happened, but because of the close working relationship between local prosecutors and the police, the case was handed over to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The DA's Office reinstated the charges against Fusco and Viola. They have denied them and their case is pending. Buffis remains free on an uninsured bond of $100,000 set by the court at his original arraignment. Buffis would be forced to pay that bond if he either fails to show up in court, or violates any of his pretrial conditions. It's unclear whether the U.S. Attorney's Office will be asking for new conditions at the Sept. 3 arraignment.
The maximum sentence for each count is 20 years in prison, five years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000, although judges base sentences on federal guidelines and other factors.
Buffis' attorney, Lori H. Levinson, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
The Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Massachusetts State Police investigated the alleged crimes.
The Laliberte Toy Fund was revived following the 2012 holiday season as a separate entity from the original one set up more than 50 years ago.
Founded in 1958 by Edward J. Laliberte, a longtime Lee police officer, it was named for him after his death in the 1980s. Buffis ran the fund from 1981 to late 2012.