The lone felony conviction in the federal trial of businessman Ben Suarez is being likened to “Round 1 of a prizefight.”
Suarez, who turns 73 in September — a month before his sentencing by U.S. District Judge Patricia A. Gaughan — faces a maximum of 20 years in prison after being convicted this week on one count of obstruction of justice by witness tampering.
The Stark County multimillionaire could also receive probation. It’s all up to the judge.
Steven Dettelbach, head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland, said a court-ordered pre-sentence investigation will take place in the months before Suarez’s Oct. 7 sentencing date, and that the judge alone has the authority to determine the penalty.
Dettelbach wouldn’t speculate on what the sentence might be, saying Gaughan will make the decision based on a variety of factors. Federal sentencing guidelines will be considered, along with an in-depth interview of Suarez — of nearly equal importance — performed by probation officials.
Lawyers on Suarez’s defense team, however, said after Monday’s verdict that a likely penalty is about one year in prison.
Moments after Gaughan read the jury’s decision, which acquitted Suarez on seven of eight counts, lead defense counsel, Mark Schamel of Washington, D.C., told the judge an appeal will be filed on the sole guilty verdict.
Gaughan could allow Suarez to remain free on bond while his appeal is being considered, a process that could take up to a year.
Suarez, who was described in opening statements as a self-made man who launched his global marketing firm from a garage in Canton in the 1970s, beat all of the remaining charges that alleged he orchestrated a scheme to violate federal campaign finance laws.
His firm, Suarez Corp. Industries (SCI) of North Canton, also faced a felony count for illegal corporate contributions, but the company was acquitted.
Prosecutors had accused Suarez of conspiring to use his top-paid executives as “straw donors” in order to raise about $200,000 in 2011 for the GOP re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and the failed U.S. Senate bid of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
Both campaigns returned the money. Neither politician has been charged with any crimes.
Company lawyer confident
Attorney Ian Friedman, who successfully defended SCI against all of the government’s accusations, said Suarez will vigorously fight his conviction in his appeal.
“We have great confidence in Mr. Suarez’s defense team,” Friedman said. “We know that they will be appealing that one issue and we are very optimistic that he, too, will be eventually cleared of all charges.
“So I would look at this,” he quickly added, “only as Round 1 of a prizefight.”
In Count 8 of Suarez’s indictment — the jury’s lone guilty verdict — he was found guilty of attempting to influence the pending grand jury testimony of his longtime friend, SCI controller Barb Housos, in the summer of 2011 during the FBI probe of the case.
Dettelbach called it “basically, a cover-up count,” where Suarez was “willfully seeking to subvert” the justice system.
Count 8 contained three separate criminal allegations:
• First, Suarez had a handwritten letter delivered to Housos while she was recuperating at home during treatment for colon cancer. The note instructed her not to communicate with her lawyer and contained an allegedly inaccurate version of events Suarez wished to present to investigators.
• Second, Suarez sent a letter to SCI’s 500-plus employees, questioning Housos’ mental health and memory in the face of her cancer treatment.
• Third, Suarez made similar statements directly to Housos.
In order to convict on that count, which was considered a separate act apart from all of the campaign finance charges, the jury had to make a unanimous finding on only one of the three allegations.
What letters mean
Suarez did not testify, and no witnesses were called in his defense, after the prosecution rested its case during the monthlong trial in Cleveland.
But Schamel, his lead trial attorney along with Akron attorney Brian Pierce, weighed in heavily on the Housos letters in his closing argument. Suarez, who initially hired high-profile lawyers from Florida to defend the campaign finance case, was in the process of hiring a new defense team and, in fact, captioned his letter to Housos as “new attorney briefing.”
Housos, whose testimony was heard by the jury in a video deposition played in court, “knew that Ben was trying to help her,” Schamel said.
Federal prosecutors, he said, made “a federal case where there isn’t one.”
Housos and Suarez, testimony showed, have been friends for 38 years.
“Barb Housos didn’t lie,” Schamel told the jury in closing arguments. “Barb Housos told the truth. Barb Housos loves Ben Suarez and Ben Suarez loves Barb Housos. He was [only] trying to help her.”
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.