Former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis gets 27 months for extortion
SPRINGFIELD — Moments after tearfully breaking down and apologizing to the court, his family and the citizens of Lee, former Police Chief Joseph Buffis was sentenced to 27 months in prison on an extortion conviction.
But that apology came too late for U.S. District Court Judge Mark Mastroianni, who said he would have given Buffis a shorter sentence if he had accepted responsibility for his actions or acknowledged his crime.
In a letter to the court prior to Tuesday's hearing, Buffis, 57, showed no remorse and insisted he still believed he'd done "the right thing at the right time for the right reasons."
Mastroianni said he found it "distressing" that the defendant failed to recognize that he had abused his position. And that failure, the judge suggested, may stem from a "deep psychological issue."
Following the 2 1/2 hour hearing, Buffis declined to comment to the media outside the courtroom except to proclaim, "Thank you, God bless America and vote for Donald Trump."
After a three-week trial, Buffis was convicted on one count of extortion last June for strong-arming a Lee couple into making a $4,000 "donation" to a charity toy fund he ran in exchange for the dropping of pending criminal charges. Buffis, a Pittsfield resident, was acquitted of 10 other counts, including fraud and money laundering, for his alleged handing of the fund.
Mastroianni said the former chief's actions affected the integrity of the Lee Police Department.
"[He] used his position to essentially auction off his own concept of justice," Mastroianni said.
The judge said he agreed with Buffis and his defense attorney, Lori Levinson, who said it was the couple who came up with the idea of making a charitable donation in lieu of criminal prosecution, but that Buffis seized upon that opportunity.
That opportunity was a way to get those funds for Buffis' own betterment, not for the betterment of the criminal justice system, he said.
"It was corrupt behavior," Mastroianni said. "It's deeply, deeply offending to the criminal justice system to have any police officer involved in such conduct."
Mastroianni told Buffis he believed he wouldn't had risen to the rank of chief within the Lee Police Department if he hadn't been both good at his job and cared about people.
"Somewhere along the line, you changed," he said.
The judge was prepared to impose the sentence immediately following the hearing, but he reluctantly agreed to allow Buffis to self-surrender in about four weeks in deference to a defense request, which prosecutors did not oppose.
No date was set for Buffis to begin serving his sentence, which also includes 200 hours of community service, two years of probation and repayment of the $4,000 to the victims, nor was it decided where he would serve.
Levinson said she would "absolutely" appeal the sentence.
Prior to the actual sentencing, most of the early part of the hearing was spent addressing specific issues related to the pre-sentencing memorandum authored by the Probation Department and what types of information could be considered when crafting an appropriate sentence.
By the end of last week, prosecutors were recommending a 51-month sentence, but they adjusted that to 33 months following some of Mastroianni's rulings on particular objections by the defense and the final draft of the pre-sentencing memorandum.
In one example, Mastroianni decided to not consider questionable or inconsistent statements from Buffis at trial as obstruction of justice to a degree they could be used to enhance a sentence recommendation.
The judge said Buffis' testimony appeared "impaired" at times.
Mastroianni did say he was going to consider some conduct presented at trial, for which Buffis was not charged when formulating a sentence.
Specifically, he said the alleged theft of money from the Lee Police Association by Buffis would be considered, but he would not base the entirety of his sentence upon it.
Buffis showed little emotion through most of the hearing, including during the pronouncement of the sentence, but he again broke down and wept into his wife's arms after the courtroom was mostly empty.
Levinson said she was disappointed by Mastroianni's ruling, and she still felt a sentence of straight probation and community service would have accomplished as much as incarceration.
A hearing to discuss the restitution to the victims may be scheduled in the next two weeks, if deemed necessary by the court.
His sentencing went through several delays between his June conviction and Tuesday's hearing.
The maximum penalty for an extortion charge is 20 years, but the actual sentence is based on federal guidelines incorporating different factors including prior criminal history, of which Buffis has none.
Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.
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