Not long ago, Benjamin Suarez was rallying his workers to defeat Obamacare.
He urged them, some of whom were political neophytes, to donate $5,000 to the campaigns of Republicans Josh Mandel, the candidate for U.S. Senate, and Rep. Jim Renacci, representing parts of Stark, Summit, Wayne and Medina counties.
The dozen or so executives from Suarez Corporation Industries, and their spouses, twice ponied up about $100,000 in a matter of a day or two in 2011.
By doing so, Suarez enhanced his position as a top GOP supporter.
But now — after his indictment two years later — Suarez says he “has no relationship” with either politician.
In fact, he said he probably wouldn’t even cast a vote for Mandel, who currently is state treasurer.
“I just don’t consider him to be a person of very good character,” Suarez said of Mandel.
A spokesman for Mandel noted that the treasurer immediately cooperated with federal investigators. Suarez, however, is accused of obstructing investigators and coercing the testimony of some workers.
“Neither Treasurer Mandel nor anyone working for him has done anything improper or been accused of any wrongdoing and, because of our continuing cooperation with the authorities, there is no further comment at this time,” Mandel spokesman Chris Berry said.
A protracted FBI investigation and a subsequent nine-count indictment have dogged Suarez and his company, Suarez Corporation Industries, for more than two years now.
In an interview last week, Suarez recalled the “panicked” calls from the Mandel and Renacci campaigns, pleading for an infusion of cash from the generous GOP supporter for their 2012 campaigns.
While he insists four of his executives may have been “confused” about their donation, Suarez insists there are others to blame for any crimes and that he and his top executive are innocent.
“We were victims of a crime,” he said. “The true culprits are going to be punished on this and not us.”
Suarez, 72, said each call came with a sense of urgency and he relayed the request to his company’s top executive Michael Giorgio, who contacted about a dozen of the top paid workers.
The workers came up with the money. However, the government alleges campaign finance laws were broken, arguing that the 20 workers and their spouses were repaid by Suarez Corporation Industries for their donations.
Suarez denies the allegations and retained an all-star team of attorneys to fight the claims, which also include accusations that he obstructed the investigation by pressuring his workers on their potential testimony.
The campaigns of Renacci and Mandel have since returned the money to the Suarez workers. Neither man is facing criminal charges.
In an interview last week, Suarez questioned why a person of his vast wealth would scheme to skirt campaign finance laws and leave an easy trail. He insists the checks cut to employees were routine profit-sharing payments.
He said each worker who donated earned at least $300,000 a year and had never been politically astute. Each executive also regularly earned a share of corporate profits as part of his or her compensation package, Suarez said.
The high earnings and company profits evaporated after 2008, he said, when President Obama took office and introduced the Affordable Care Act.
“They weren’t politically motivated before,” Suarez said. “But after they saw their income drop by $500,000, they were motivated.”
Suarez said his company’s profits plummeted and his top earners saw their 2011 incomes drop by half of their annual average of $1 million. That summer, he said, they were eager to support Mandel in his run for the U.S. Senate and Renacci for the U.S. House.
Suarez said the rush to contribute in two days may have led to some workers being confused about being reimbursed. He said four workers “got confused” about their donations.
“Some of them thought the profit-sharing was reimbursement. [But] it was simply their profit-sharing that was due to them,” Suarez said. “I don’t know how. I guess in the rush of everything it wasn’t explained properly.”
“There was a lot of rush and miscommunication,” he said. “[But] why would I, who is set for life financially, and Mike Giorgio, who’s set for life, why would we take the chance to go to jail for five years?”
He added that he doesn’t expect any of his workers to testify when his case goes to trial next summer in U.S. District Court.
Suarez is a tireless businessman who rose from the streets of Canton to become one of the region’s wealthiest men. He did it by selling trinkets and gadgets such as jewelry, kitchenware and coins in magazines and on TV. He’s also the creator of the EdenPure heater brand, made at his plant in Jackson Township.
His company has had its share of controversy, most recently in California where state attorneys are suing his company over claims its health-care aids don’t work as advertised.
Mandel writes letter
In fact, Mandel wrote a letter to the California state treasurer on Suarez’s behalf around the time of the $100,000 donation.
But Suarez insists his company, in existence for more than 44 years, has only been involved in seven “minor civil cases” and far less, he added, than most other manufacturing companies.
He has also brought his own share of highly charged lawsuits and waged political attacks on government officials from Washington, D.C., to California.
“It’s a matter of principle for me when I get a government official who is corrupt,” he said. “I’m not going to let them get away with it, I guess.”
In one case, he filed a federal court action against then-Stark County Common Pleas Judge Sarah Lioi, seeking to have her removed from a case pitting Suarez against his own son-in-law, Rodney Napier.
Suarez accused Napier, once a Suarez Corp. executive, of creating a rival company to his EdenPure brand. In his claims against Lioi, Suarez cites several rulings the judge made which he believed unfairly favored Napier. Two months later, Suarez dismissed his case against Lioi.
Lioi, now a federal judge, recused herself after being assigned Suarez’s criminal case last month.
Suarez has even taken up a fight against the Better Business Bureau for a negative rating of Suarez’s company.
“They have just a vendetta against us. That rating is a lie. Our products are top quality,” he said.
Nowadays, Suarez, a University of Akron graduate, works mostly from his Jackson Township estate. He has a history of generosity to UA. Recently, a 2,700-square-foot strength-and-conditioning center for athletes was named the Benjamin and Nancy Suarez Family Strength and Conditioning Center. Suarez’s $100,000 donation paid for the building.
In 2008, the Benjamin and Nancy Suarez Applied Marketing Research Laboratories, part of the UA’s College of Business Administration, was dedicated. The Suarezes donated $1 million to help create the facility, which does brain research.
While Suarez may be generous to his alma mater, he said his days as a political campaign contributor are waning. “I’m not sure I’m going to donate or raise money for anyone anymore,” he said.