Posted at: 08/21/2013 12:54 AM
Updated at: 08/21/2013 12:51 PM
By: Dan Levy
LEE, MASSACHUSETTS - It was a stunning decision that surprised many residents of Lee, Mass.
With a federal indictment hanging over his head, Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis was fired Tuesday night by the town select board. But, strange as it seems, the select board members insist the firing had nothing to do with the indictment.
The crowd inside Lee Town Hall was overflowing and the sentiment was overriding with emotion. Most people seemed to be expecting some action against Buffis, but not the action taken.
Earlier this month, Buffis was indicted by a federal grand jury on extortion and money laundering charges after the U.S. attorney said Buffis looked the other way when two town residents were suspected of prostitution related charges.
Those charges disappeared after the couple donated $4,000 to a holiday toy drive for children, that Buffis controlled.
After the indictment, Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless reinstated charges against Tara and Thomas Fusco, proprietors of the Inn at Laurel Lake.
After Lori Levinson, Buffis' attorney, reminded board members that her client was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and urged them not to suspend him or his pay, the town administrator dropped a bombshell.
Robert Nason announced to the town select board members, and the packed house, that Buffis had misappropriated $5,000 in public funds by allegedly allowing taxpayers foot the bill for the cell phones used by his wife and two children.
"The town has requested Mr. Buffis' resignation in light of these revelations and additionally the town has demanded restitution," Nason read in a prepared statement.
The three select board members, David Consolati, Gordon Bailey, and Patricia Carlino voted unanimously to terminate Buffis.
"I'm stunned at the board's actions," Levinson stated, "I think it's outrageous."
Jeremia Pollard, the town's attorney, said the select board members had no other choice to make.
"We don't pay for peoples' family phone plans in the town on the taxpayers' backs," he said. "Plain and simple. Period."
Not everyone in town thought it was plain and simple. Beverly Trombley, a long time Lee resident, thinks it was suspiciously too convenient for Nason to discover the alleged cell phone discrepancy after Buffis had been chief for more than a year.
"Now, suddenly it becomes the ax with which to fire the chief," Trombley questioned, "That's baloney!"
Greg Juskalian thinks the firing came too quickly and believes the cell phone issue may have been just a misunderstanding.
"What is (Chief Buffis) supposed to do?" Juskalian wondered out loud, "Thirty-four years (as a Lee police officer). How is he supposed to defend himself without pay? He has no income."
Levinson says, at this point, she's not sure what recourse her client may have. She does reiterate that Buffis did "absolutely nothing wrong", and she says he will fight the charges fervently.
The select board also announced Tuesday night that they would begin the process to find a new full time chief immediately.