A New York man charged with attempting to extort Paula Deen pleaded guilty in court on Friday to threatening to release “damning” statements about embattled celebrity chef unless she paid him $250,000. Appearing before a District Court judge in Georgia, Thomas George Paculis, 62, acknowledged that he initiated an e-mail discussion with Deen’s attorney shortly after a scandal over racist comments she made to employees broke, in which he promised to keep quiet in exchange for money.
“I had, I guess, some bad judgment,” Paculis told Judge William T. Moore Jr., the same U.S. federal judge who ruled on the controversial Troy Davis case back in 2010. “I do take responsibility for what I have done.”
Paculis, a resident of Newfield, N.Y., alleged in the e-mail to Deen’s lawyer Greg Hodges, that he had “damning” information about Deen. ‘‘I am about to go public with statements refuting your clients statements about using the ‘N’ word in her business practices at Lady and Son's... The statements are true and damning enough that the case for Jackson will be won on it’s merit alone... [sic]’’ Paculis wrote on June 24, according to court documents, before adding that there was, “a price for such information.”
Hodges immediately contacted the FBI who instructed him to respond to the e-mail and attempt to broker a deal. According to a criminal complaint filed in July, Paculis eventually cited multiple pieces of information that he told Hodges “would damage your client in so many ways that it would sink your ship before it left the dock,” the Associated Press reported.
After several back-and-forth e-mails, Hodges and Paculis finally spoke by phone. During the conversation, Hodges alleged that Paculis demanded $250,000 for his information, and specified that he did not want a paper trail. Heeding the FBI’s directive, Hodges bartered Paculis’ asking price down to $200,000, and the pair discussed the logistics of transferring the money.
Paculis also got in touch with Matt Billips, an attorney representing Lisa Jackson, the former manager of a restaurant Deen co-owned with her brother Bubba Hiers who filed a $1.2 million lawsuit against the pair. Paculis allegedly tried to see if billips would pay more for his information than Deen’s. “I have pushed the opposing firm to that level of giving me an amount of money, in cash to never been heard of again and to never utter Paula Deen’s name… again,” Paculis wrote in an email to Billips on July 1. “Now the burning questions is… do you want in… I still have the chance to bring this together, but time is slowly running out… I have them hooked, but realing this sucker in is gonna be hard without help.”
Although like Deen, Paculis also owns a restaurant in Savannah, the Troupe Square Café, he is not believed to know Deen personally. When the FBI presented a photograph of Paculis to Deen she said that she did not recognize his face or name.
Paculis has not commented on why he tried to extort Deen, but his probation officer told Judge Moore that Paculis had been unemployed for roughly a year. In court, Paculis reportedly struggled to explain his behavior, saying that he had hoped that by asking Hodges to sign a nondisclosure agreement he would avoid prosecution.
“I thought that would make this more legal, “ Paculis said. “I did try to take money from her.”
Paculis, who pleaded guilty of one count of using interstate communications to attempt extortion as part of a plea deal, faces up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. He is currently free on $10,000 bond.