Federal appeals court upholds conviction of former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis

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LEE — A federal appeals court has upheld the extortion conviction against former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis, calling him "full of bull."

In a colorfully written decision, the First Circuit Court of Appeals last week said Buffis used a charity toy fund as his "personal piggy bank."

Buffis was convicted in June 2015 following a three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Springfield for strong-arming a Lee couple into providing a $4,000 donation to the toy fund he oversaw in exchange for dropping solicitation-related charges against them. He was sentenced in May 2016 to 27 months in prison.

Buffis was acquitted of 10 other counts, including wire fraud and money laundering, for his alleged handling of the toy fund's finances.

Seth Kretzer, Buffis' Houston-based appellate attorney, said in an email he plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling notes that the case against Buffis is a "sordid story" that began in January 2012 with a bust at the former Inn at Laurel Lake after investigators were tipped off that a Craigslist ad offering massage services was a ploy to solicit sex for a fee.

The couple who ran the inn at the time were not arrested and the woman involved offered to work undercover in a reverse-sting operation to prosecute the johns availing themselves of the services.

Buffis then falsely reported to the media the couple had been arrested, which led to a slew of unwanted publicity for the inn, leading to cancellations of bookings and its eventual foreclosure.

Buffis made arrangements to have the couple donate $4,000 to the toy fund in exchange for the dropping of charges, but it required engaging in a non-disclosure agreement, prohibiting them from publicizing the dismissal.

The couple weren't happy with the terms; they preferred the money go to a local animal shelter and they anticipated only having to donate $1,000, until Buffis told them otherwise.

They also balked at the nondisclosure agreement, but went along because they felt they had no choice at that point.

Once it was learned charges against the couple weren't going forward, the Berkshire District Attorney's office asked state police to look into the matter, which eventually uncovered the illicit arrangement as well as the alleged financial fraud.

Buffis argued he didn't coerce the couple into making the donation and the idea of donating money to avoid prosecution came first from the couple, therefore, he cannot be guilty of extortion.

The court disagreed.

"The trial evidence was sufficient for a jury to find Buffis guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that Buffis' legal arguments to the contrary have no merit," the decision reads.

The court found the $4,000, which the court described as "bribe money, constituted a payment to which Buffis was not entitled, that he knew the payment was in return for an official act and the money came from the inn's business account and affected commerce, constituting extortion.

The decision also said it was immaterial that the couple approached authorities first with the idea, noting the government wasn't required to show Buffis came up with the plan, just that he developed and capitalized on the scheme suggested out of desperation by the couple.

Buffis is currently serving his sentence at the Gilmer Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia.

Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter.


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