By Stephanie Barry
SPRINGFIELD — Former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis, accused of ripping off a police-sponsored Christmas gift fund for needy children, was drowning in debt as he siphoned money off the charity, according to prosecutors.
Buffis is facing a 12-count criminal indictment in U.S. District Court in connection with the alleged scheme. Federal investigators argue Buffis stole $120,000 from the Laliberte Toy Fund since 1999 to pay overdue credit card bills and other debts; they contend Buffis transferred cash from the charity to his personal bank accounts. Buffis has denied all the allegations.
"Mr. Buffis was in extreme debt," Assistant U.S. Attorney Deepika Shukla told a judge on Tuesday.
Buffis is scheduled to go on trial starting March 2. He is accused of extortion, wire fraud, money-laundering and other related charges. Lawyers in the case are currently wrangling over whether a single count in the indictment, alleging the defendant improperly passed on his family's cell phone bills to the town, belongs in the trial.
Defense lawyer Lori H. Levinson has argued the so-called "Verizon count" in the indictment should be severed from the remaining counts because it shares no common thread with the others beyond dishonesty.
"It would simply make Mr. Buffis look like 'a bad guy,'" Levinson argued to U.S. District Judge Mark G. Mastroianni, adding that the taint would unfairly prejudice her client at trial.
It would simply make Mr. Buffis look like 'a bad guy.'
The prosecution was first prompted by a revelation that Buffis allegedly steered a potential prostitution case away from two innkeepers in Lee in exchange for a $4,000 donation to the toy fund. When investigators began digging in, according to court records, they discovered Buffis had used virtually all of the donations the public intended to help poor families to assist his own.
A recent filing by the government states investigators found just two receipts for toys since 1999 - totaling just over $500 - and the fund otherwise showed balances near zero.
Shukla states in her motion that prosecutors intend to call former Buffis co-workers to tell jurors that he often complained of being "cash-strapped" and "broke," plus a neighbor who will testify that he loaned Buffis $20,000 to pay for his son's motocross school tuition.
Of the "iPhone fraud" allegations, a town official told federal investigators that Buffis first maintained the phone were for task force members, and he did not grant Buffis permission to pass along $5,000 in family cell phone bills to the Lee taxpayers.
Buffis was fired after being indicted in 2013, however, town officials attributed the firing to the cell phone allegations.
Mastroianni is considering the defense motion to sever that count from the rest.