The FBI on Friday arrested an alleged blackmailer in New York, drawing a line on what’s become a national pile-on of former Food Network superstar Paula Deen after she admitted in an April deposition that she had used the word “nigger” in the past.
According to an FBI affidavit, Thomas George Paculis, a former restaurant owner in Ms. Deen’s hometown of Savannah, Ga., schemed to extort $250,000 from the silver-haired Southern icon in exchange for keeping mum about other potentially damaging allegations against her. Mr. Paculis, the FBI alleges, approached Ms. Deen’s lawyers five days after Deen’s use of the “N-word” became public.
He wrote that “the statements are true and damning enough …, [but] as always … there is a price for such confirmation.”
For now, the extortion attempt may be the least of Deen’s concerns.
Nine sponsors have bailed on Deen, who has tearfully apologized, while also criticizing people telling “hurtful lies” about her character.
“I am so distressed that people I’ve never heard of are all of a sudden experts on who I am,” she told NBC’s Matt Lauer on June 26. "I is what I is, and I’m not changing,” she added, before asking viewers without sin to “please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.”
A national publisher also pulled the release of her new cookbook after the Food Network dropped her contract.
Maintaining she had only used the controversial word in the distant past, Deen also defended in the deposition a suggestion she made while planning a wedding in 2007, where she imagined a plantation-style affair complete with an all-black wait staff, acknowledging at the time that such a soiree would probably get her in trouble with the press.
The civil lawsuit in question alleges that Deen’s brother and business partner, Bubba Hiers, sexually harassed employees at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, and that Deen, a co-owner, did nothing to stop it. The lawsuit is still ongoing, and no finding of guilt has been made.
To be sure, many of Deen’s fans flocked to her side, saying critics were wrong to paint her as a bigot and racist. But others said that Deen undermined herself by playing up the charms of Southern culture while failing to leave behind the uglier legacies of the former Confederacy.
In a defense of Deen, USA Today’s Rod Dreher suggests that the 60-something Deen “holds to a moonlight-and-magnolia romanticism that is common among white Southerners of her generation,” while admitting that, “Yes, it’s now in questionable taste, and, yes, it reveals an impoverished moral imagination.”
Deen’s own attempts at explaining her attitudes on race relations in the South have been at times awkward, but also suggest a more intellectual approach to how she views the legacy of racism and prejudice in the Deep South that shaped her.
In the fall of 2012, she told the New York Times’ Kim Severson that she believes race relations in the South are “pretty good,” but that “it will take a long time for [prejudice] to completely be gone … if it’ll ever be gone.” Then she added, “We’re all prejudiced against one thing or another. I think that black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel.”
Such statements have apparently invited more than public admonition, the blackmail arrest suggests.
In a letter to the plaintiff’s lawyer in the workplace harassment lawsuit, Paculis, according to the affidavit, tried to double up his hush money potential.
"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. Now the burning question is: do you want in?”
Paculis is set to be arraigned in Savannah on July 16.