SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A New York man charged with trying to extort $200,000 from embattled celebrity cook Paula Deen has agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors, according to federal court records.
Prosecutors filed a notice in U.S. District Court in Savannah last Wednesday saying 62-year-old Thomas George Paculis “has signed his plea agreement.” A change-of-plea hearing was scheduled Friday afternoon before Judge William T. Moore Jr. No details of the agreement were given in the court filings.
Paculis’ defense attorney, Richard Darden, declined to comment Monday. James Durham, chief assistant prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Savannah, also would not discuss the deal.
Paculis of Newfield, N.Y., pleaded not guilty July 16 to two counts of using interstate communications to try to extort money from Deen. The FBI says he contacted one of Deen’s lawyers by email a few days after Deen’s culinary empire began to crumble when documents became public showing that the former Food Network star acknowledged using the N-word in the past. Deen made the statement under oath as she was questioned by attorneys in a 2012 harassment and discrimination lawsuit by former employee Lisa Jackson.
In the June 24 email to attorney Gary Hodges, Paculis said he was about to go public with statements that were “true and damning enough that the case for Jackson will be won on its merits alone” and added “there is a price for such information,” according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. Hodges contacted the FBI, which directed the attorney to communicate with Paculis by email and later by phone.
Authorities say Paculis initially asked that Deen pay him $250,000 to keep quiet, but Hodges negotiated the amount down 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 Paculis in early July and brought him to Georgia. After entering his initial plea, Paculis was granted a $10,000 bond and allowed to return to New York on the condition that he stay away from Deen and her businesses. Records in the case don’t say specifically what information Paculis claimed to know about Deen. The FBI said it showed Deen a photograph of the suspect and she said she didn’t recognize him or his name.
The civil suit filed last year by Jackson, a former manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, says she was sexually harassed and worked in an environment rife with racial slurs and innuendo. The restaurant is owned by Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers.