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Man charged with trying to extort $250,000 from chef Paula Deen

Food Network television personality Paula Deen at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West, Florida July 21, 2012. REUTERS/Andy Newman/Florida Keys News
Food Network television personality Paula Deen at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West, Florida July 21, 2012. REUTERS/Andy Newman/Florida Keys News

(Reuters) - A New York man was arrested Friday on charges that he tried to extort $250,000 from celebrity chef Paula Deen over what he said were "true and damning" statements that would cost her a discrimination lawsuit, the FBI said.

Thomas George Paculis, 62, of Newfield, New York, was arrested and charged with extortion, the FBI said in a statement.

Deen, 66, who had a multimillion-dollar enterprise built on books, restaurants, television shows and housewares, has lost about a dozen business deals since a deposition surfaced in which the TV chef admitted to using a racial epithet for black people.

A former employee of Paula Deen Enterprises, Lisa Jackson, is suing Deen and her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers for racial and sex discrimination in the work place. The video-taped deposition related to the suit was made in May and surfaced in June.

According to an FBI agent's affidavit, Paculis emailed attorneys for both sides in the civil lawsuit on June 24 saying he had "damning" information. The affidavit never specified what information, if any, Paculis had.

"The statements are true and damning enough that the case for Jackson will be won on its merit alone," Paculis said in the email he sent to Deen's attorney, Greg Hodges, according to the affidavit.

The email went on to say, "There is a price for such information," and "You can contact me here if you feel it is necessary ... or I can go public and we will see what happens then...," the affidavit said.

Hodges contacted the FBI after receiving the email. The FBI told Hodges to reply to Paculis and they exchanged several emails and then in a telephone call on June 26 Paculis told Hodges he wanted $250,000 not to go to the media, it said.

At the direction of the FBI, Hodges negotiated a reduction in the extortion payment to $200,000 during another call with Paculis the next day, the affidavit said.

Paculis was released on his own recognizance after appearing before a federal magistrate judge in New York on Friday. Because the charges were filed in federal court in Georgia where the attorneys practice, Paculis is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate judge in Savannah, Georgia, at 9 a.m. EDT on July 16.

(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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