NY man pleads not guilty in Deen extortion plot

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A New York man pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of trying to extort embattled celebrity cook Paula Deen.

Court documents show Thomas George Paculis of Newfield, N.Y., appeared in Chatham County Superior Court to enter his not guilty plea.

An indictment filed July 10 in U.S. District Court in Savannah charges Paculis with trying to extort $200,000 from Deen in exchange for keeping quiet about allegedly damaging remarks she had made in the past. Details on what Deen’s alleged remarks were, and the relationship between Paculis and Deen, were unclear.

A complaint said Paculis initially tried extorting $250,000 from Deen but eventually lowered the amount after a discussion via email with one of Deen’s attorneys, Greg Hodges.

Hodges and Paculis eventually spoke by phone. Paculis said he didn’t want to leave a paper trail and at the direction of the FBI, Hodges negotiated the amount to $200,000. Paculis told Hodges he was house sitting in New York, didn’t have a car and didn’t know how he was going to collect the money, the complaint says.

Federal agents arrested the man in early July.

A message left with Paculis’ court-appointed attorney on Tuesday afternoon wasn’t returned.

The attempted extortion case took form after Deen’s culinary empire began crumbling in response to her acknowledgement in a deposition that she had used racial slurs in the past.

The deposition was part of a civil lawsuit filed in 2012 by Lisa Jackson, a former manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, which Deen co-owns with her brother, Bubba Hiers. Jackson alleged that she was sexually harassed and worked in an environment rife with racial slurs and innuendo.

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