Paula Deen’s alleged extortionist heads to court

By Alan Duke and Greg Botelho, CNN

(CNN) — A Georgia man accused of trying to extort Paula Deen by threatening to divulge “true and damning” information about the embattled celebrity chef appeared in federal court Tuesday and pleaded not guilty.

Thomas George Paculis, 62, was arrested on a criminal complaint by FBI agents in Ithaca, New York, earlier this month.

The former Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, resident appeared before a U.S. magistrate judge in Savannah, Georgia, Tuesday morning for arraignment. The federal charges were filed on June 24 in the U.S. Southern District of Georgia.

Paculis entered a plea of not guilty and was placed under $10,000 bond, according to court documents from the hearing.

A federal judge in New York released Paculis on bond a day after his arrest, said Stephen Emmett with the FBI’s Atlanta office.

Savannah is where Deen built her business and brand into what many consider the folksy face of Southern cooking.

But she’s been on her heels after admitting, in a deposition related to a lawsuit brought by a former employee, that she’s used the “N-word” in the past.

Former employee Lisa Jackson alleged that Deen and her brother Bubba Hier committed numerous acts of violence, discrimination and racism that resulted in the end of her five-year employment at The Lady and Sons, and Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, two Savannah restaurants run by Deen and her family.

In the media firestorm that followed, Deen lost at least nine lucrative endorsements and her Food Network cooking show, while the publication of her eagerly anticipated cookbook was canceled.

According to a criminal complaint, Paculis interjected himself on June 24, five days after details of Deen’s deposition became public.

On that day, he sent an e-mail to Deen’s lawyer vowing that he was “about to go public” with information about the chef’s use of the “N-word” at Lady and Sons, according to a copy of the e-mail cited in the criminal complaint.

“The statements are true and damning enough that the case for Jackson will be won on it’s merit alone,” Paculis wrote, according to the FBI. “As always … there is a price for such confirmation.

“You can contact me here if you feel it is necessary,” he said, referring to his e-mail address, the criminal complaint states. “Or I can go public and we will see what happens then.”

Greg Hodges, Deen’s lawyer, exchanged e-mails with Paculis and the two talked over the phone two days later, according to the FBI. It was then that Paculis allegedly asked for $250,000 “net” — or total, with taxes having already been paid — in exchange for not talking, the criminal complaint states.

The two conversed a second time by phone June 27 when, “at the direction of the FBI,” Hodges negotiated the hush money payment down to $200,000.

The next day, Deen told FBI agents that she didn’t recognize Paculis’s name or face, based on photographs.

Hodges declined comment on the alleged extortion arrest.

Nancy Aldridge, who was married to Paculis for four months around 1986, told CNN that he once had his own restaurant in Savannah though she hasn’t had much direct contact with him in recent years.

Meanwhile, according to the FBI’s criminal complaint, Paculis had also reached out to Jackson’s lawyer. In fact, the agency alleges that the 62-year-old first reached out to Matt Billips by e-mail and phone on the same day — June 24 — that he contacted Deen’s lawyer.

Billips said his staff conducted its own investigation of Paculis.

Paculis asked Jackson’s lawyer how much he’d pay for derogatory information about Deen, the complaint claims.

“I have pushed the opposing firm to (give) 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,” Paculis allegedly wrote, according to an e-mail to Billips excerpted in the FBI complaint.

“Now the burning question is,” he purportedly added, “do you want in.”

CNN’s Elwyn Lopez contributed to this report.

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