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.