Prosecutors rebut motion by Buffis lawyers

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SPRINGFIELD — Prosecutors presented ample evidence that former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis was guilty of extortion, according to a government motion seeking to uphold his conviction.

That motion, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, comes in response to a defense motion to acquit filed in September by Buffis' attorney.

Defense attorney Lori Levinson has argued there was insufficient evidence presented at trial that Buffis intended to use his position as chief to extort a donation to which he wasn't entitled.

In its 15-page motion, the government rejected that notion, in part, because it asserts Buffis knew he was being paid by Lee couple Thomas Fusco and Tara Viola in exchange for dropping pending criminal charges against them.

Prosecutors go on to say Buffis' own actions after collecting $4,000 from the pair were attempts to, "either undo or cover up his crime, and such actions demonstrate his consciousness of guilt."

Those actions included meeting privately with Fusco and Viola before their show cause hearing — during which the $4,000 was collected — and signing a nondisclosure agreement preventing all parties from discussing the dropping of the charges with anyone, including the press or other officers involved in the investigation.

Viola told investigators from the beginning she would be willing to donate money she'd accumulated through illegal activity to a charity in hopes of mitigating charges against her, before Buffis became involved in her case.

Levinson used that as fodder for her position to acquit, arguing Buffis didn't know he was being paid in exchange for use of his official power, but instead had accepted an offer which had previously been made.

Prosecutors said Fusco and Viola both testified they wished to donate $1,000 to a dog shelter but that Buffis had expressly insisted on a $4,000 donation to the toy fund.

The couple testified they felt they had no choice but to donate to the fund in order to have their cases dismissed.

It was the level of secrecy surrounding the show cause hearing that triggered a larger investigation into Buffis' handling of the fund, leading to federal indictments on money laundering and wire fraud charges as well as extortion.

Buffis first told investigators he wrote three checks to "cash" off of the $4,000 and purchased toys for the holiday gift fund he oversaw, but after being confronted with evidence from his own bank records, Buffis admitted using the money for personal expenses.

During the investigation, Buffis gave other inconsistent statements to investigators about the fate of the $4,000, and the amount of money that was available in the toy fund account, according to prosecutors.

At trial, Buffis argued he made legitimate purchases of toys throughout the year and paid himself back with donations made to the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund, but didn't keep records of those transactions.

On June 9, Buffis was found guilty on the lone count of extortion following an approximately three-week long trial and after about 15 hours of deliberations.

The jury of eight women and four men cleared Buffis of seven charges of money laundering and three of wire fraud connected to his handling of the toy fund.

Sentencing on the extortion conviction is scheduled for Dec. 7 in U.S. District Court before Judge Mark G. Mastroianni.

The maximum penalty on the extortion conviction is up to 20 years in prison, five years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. However, actual federal sentences are typically less than the maximum, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.


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