Federal criminal probe involves Laliberte Toy Fund in Lee
PITTSFIELD -- The U.S. Attorney's Office in Springfield is conducting a criminal investigation involving the Laliberte Toy Fund in Lee.
As part of the investigation, the U.S. Attorney is collecting copies of Laliberte Toy Fund articles published in The Eagle between October 2007 and January 2012.
The U.S. Attorney requested the articles from The Eagle, and the newspaper obliged because they already are accessible online. The U.S. Attorney's request marks the official confirmation of a law enforcement investigation of the Laliberte Toy Fund, which provides toys to needy families in the Lee area and had been managed by Lee Police Chief Joseph L. Buffis from 1979 until the program was suspended last year.
The FBI searched the Lee Police Department and reportedly Buffis' home in Pittsfield on Nov. 19, but the agency has refused to say what it was looking for and what, if anything, it had found.
Federal investigators have declined to comment on their activities, including if Buffis is the target of an investigation. Buffis, Lee's police chief since September 2011, has confirmed that he has retained an attorney, while the rest of the Lee Police Department has gone on record stating they are not subjects of an investigation.
No charges have been filed against Buffis, who declined to comment Tuesday about the U.S. Attorney's request to view Laliberte Toy Fund articles published by The Eagle.
The newspaper has published the Laliberte Toy Fund lists during the annual holiday fund drive as a community service, and The Eagle has reported occasional articles about the fund's progress.
The newspaper isn't financially or managerially involved in the fund.
For the first time since fundraising began in 1958, the Laliberte Toy Fund was suspended and no toys were distributed for Christmas 2012. In an interview in December, Buffis told The Eagle that the fund wasn't accepting donations while it underwent a "reorganization." Buffis no longer is managing the fund.
"The reorganization was not completed in time for this year's fund drive, but will be back in 2013," Buffis told The Eagle on Dec. 19.
The late Edward J. Laliberte, a longtime Lee police officer, established the toy fund 55 years ago by repairing toys in his garage and then distributing them to disadvantaged children in Lee, Lenox Dale and Tyringham. The fund grew to the point that Laliberte started accepting money donations from the public in order to provide toys for the kids.
When Laliberte retired in 1979, the toy fund became the responsibility of the Lee Police Association. Buffis began managing the fund that year and personally provided donor listings to The Eagle.
In recent years, donors were instructed to mail their donations to a Lee Post Office box, drop them off at the Lee Emergency Dispatch Center or the Lee Police Department, or give them to any Lee police officer. The published listings included the donor's name or as "anonymous," along with the amount they had given and a brief greeting or well-wish. The listings also tallied how much had been raised incrementally toward the fund's annual goal.
In recent years, the fund provided toys for more than 120 children and had a fundraising goal of $8,500, which it nearly met. Families applied to be recipients of children's toys, which were distributed in mid-December in time for Christmas.
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