Ex-Lee police chief hits roadblocks in seeking pension benefits after prison

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PITTSFIELD — Now that he has served his federal prison sentence for extortion, former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis is pushing to receive his retirement benefits.

So far, the answer has been no.

On March 14, Central Berkshire District Court Judge Mark J. Pasquariello upheld an August decision by the Berkshire Retirement Board that denied Buffis the retirement benefits he accumulated during his 29-year career as a police officer in Lee. Buffis has since appealed the judge's ruling to Berkshire Superior Court.

The Berkshire Retirement Board discussed the matter during its monthly meeting Wednesday but took no action because the matter is tied up in the courts.

"Joe's argument is that the penalty is excessive," said Sheila LaBarbera, executive director of the retirement board. "At this point, there's no action for the board to take."

The board has jurisdiction over the Berkshire County Retirement System, which administers the pension system for the public employees of 46 towns, districts and authorities throughout Berkshire County.

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Buffis was convicted of extortion in 2015, after a three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Springfield, for persuading a Lee couple to provide a $4,000 donation to the toy fund he oversaw in exchange for dropping solicitation-related charges against them. He received a 27-month federal prison sentence, followed by two years of supervised probation, in May 2016.

In July 2018, Buffis applied to receive payment of his retirement benefits worth $1 million — approximately $50,000 annually over a life expectancy of about an additional 20 years.

At a pension forfeiture hearing, he contended that having to forfeit his pension violated his state and constitutional rights, according to court documents.

But the board voted to deny Buffis' request because he had been convicted of a law that was applicable to the office that he held, which is a condition of state law. Buffis, who was 60 when the pension forfeiture hearing took place, served as Lee's police chief during his final 2 1/2 years on the force.

In District Court, Buffis, who represented himself, did not contest the retirement board's determination that the conviction was for an offense applicable to the position that he had held. Instead, he claimed that the decision violated the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In his ruling, Pasqauriello wrote that while Buffis' conduct did not harm the public coffers, "it did result in a severe breach of the public trust."

Having to forfeit his pension is "an extremely significant penalty to pay" for Buffis' many years of service as a member of Lee's police force, Pasquariello wrote. But when applying state law to the facts, Pasquariello found that the forfeiture "is not grossly disproportional to the gravity of the crime committed."


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