Tompkins County man pleads not guilty to trying to extort Paula Deen

Thomas Paculis

The Tompkins County man accused of trying to extort money from celebrity chef Paula Deen pleaded not guilty in federal court in Georgia on Tuesday.

Thomas Paculis, 62, was arrested in Newfield earlier this month. Investigators say he tried to get $250,000 in compensation for not disclosing "true and damming" statements made by Deen to the media.

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

According to the criminal complaint obtained by CNYCentral, Paculis indicated the information would bring hardship and financial ruin to Deen and help the lawsuit complainant Lisa Jackson, who's suing Paula Deen Enterprises for sexual and racial discrimination.

The complaint says Deen received an email and a follow-up phone call from Paculis. In the email, laid out in the criminal complaint, Paculis writes: "As always, there is a price for such information...You can contact me here if you feel it is necessary...or I can go public and we will see what happens then."

At the direction of the FBI, Greg Hodges, an attorney for Deen, called Paculis. In the conversation, Paculis allegedly said he did not want a paper trail and that he wanted $250,000 'net.'

The next day, with the FBI still involved, Hodges negotiated the amount down to $200,000. The next day, the FBI learned Paculis had contacted Matt Billips, the attorney for Lisa Jackson.

In an email to Billips, Paculis allegedly wrote, "It seems like in every life of a lawyer he will over step that line because he wants to win...but paying a potential witness not to testify amounts to obstruction of justice, even if it's in a civil suit. 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 in public or private ever again...Now the burning question you want in...I still have the chance to bring this together, but time is slowly running out...I have them hooked, but reeling this sucker in is gonna be hard without help...give me a call."

Paculis is charged with extortion. He will be allowed to remain free on a $10,000 unsecured bond.