SAVANNAH, Ga. - A New York man pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to trying to extort $200,000 from Paula Deen by threatening to reveal damaging information about the embattled celebrity cook if she didn't pay him to stay quiet.
"I had, I guess, some bad judgment," 62-year-old Thomas George Paculis told a U.S. District Court judge in Savannah. "I do take responsibility for what I have done."
Paculis, of Newfield, acknowledged sending emails to Deen's attorney offering to trade his silence for cash in June. It came a few days after documents became public that revealed the former Food Network star had said under oath that she used racial slurs in the past.
As Deen's culinary empire began to crumble, Paculis claimed he could reveal things that would bring her "financial hardship and even ruin," according to one email that invited Deen's lawyer to "make me an offer I can't refuse."
Neither Paculis nor federal authorities have revealed what sort of dirt the defendant claimed he could dish up regarding Deen or if he truly had any at all. He owned a restaurant in Savannah in the 1990s, but Deen told the FBI she didn't recognize his name or his face.
Paculis, who declined to comment to reporters as he left the courthouse, also never said why he tried to shake down Deen. It's possible he just needed money. An attorney was appointed to defend Paculis last month when he said he couldn't afford to hire one. And his probation officer told the judge Friday that Paculis had been unemployed for a year.
As he described his actions Friday to Judge William T. Moore Jr., Paculis at times seemed to have trouble explaining himself. He said that he had hoped to avoid prosecution by persuading Deen's attorney into paying him to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
"I thought that would make this more legal," Paculis said, though he also acknowledged: "I did try to take money from her."
A spokeswoman for Deen, Elana Weiss, did not immediately return a phone call and email message seeking comment.
Paculis faces up to two years in federal prison and a maximum $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to one count of using interstate communications to try to extort money. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dropped a second count of the same charge.
No sentencing date has been set, though the judge said it will likely be in several months. He allowed Paculis to remain free on $10,000 bond and return to New York, but he'll have to submit to electronic monitoring.
Moore is also the presiding judge in the civil lawsuit against Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers, by a former employee. Lisa Jackson sued them last year for sexual harassment and discrimination, saying she was surrounded by sexual innuendo and racial slurs when she managed Uncle Bubba's Seafood and Oyster House, owned by Deen and her brother.
The Food Network and others dropped their business dealings with Deen in June after her legal deposition in the case became public. Answering questions under oath from Jackson's lawyer, Deen said she had used the N-word in the past. She insisted "it's been a very long time."
FBI agent Brad Snider testified that Paculis first contacted Deen's attorney June 24, just five days after the first news reports on Deen's deposition. The lawyer contacted the FBI, which directed him to stay in touch with Paculis as agents monitored their email and recorded their phone calls. Authorities say Paculis also emailed Jackson's attorney, trying to see if he would pay more for information than Deen's lawyer would for Paculis' silence.
After Paculis struck a deal with Deen's attorney to keep quiet for $200,000, the FBI arrested him in New York on July 5.
"It's reprehensible that someone would offer to sell their testimony in a case," Moore said from the bench.
Paculis told the judge he's divorced with two adopted teenage daughters. His attorney, Richard Darden, said Paculis lives with and cares for a woman in her 50s who has Down syndrome. When asked if he had talked with family and friends before deciding to plead guilty, Paculis said: "I'm the only family I have."