Prosecutors in the upcoming federal trial of Stark County businessman Benjamin Suarez are seeking to introduce evidence that, if allowed, could lead to the issuing of subpoenas to U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and state Treasurer Josh Mandel.
In a pretrial motion filed this week in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, prosecutors say the evidence will show that Suarez had access to and sought favorable treatment from two “powerful elected officials” leading up to the 2012 general election.
The government’s motion specifically names Renacci, a Republican from Wadsworth, and left no doubt that the other public official is Mandel, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate two years ago.
If Judge Patricia A. Gaughan grants the request to introduce such “other acts” evidence, it would mean that in all likelihood Renacci and Mandel soon would be subpoenaed — by prosecutors and the defense — to testify in the June 2 trial.
Prosecutors routinely attempt to use other acts, or longstanding evidence, in state and federal criminal trials to prove motive or intent as a pattern in connection with the current charges they intend to present to a jury.
Suarez, 72, who heads a multimillion-dollar global marketing firm, is accused of using “straw donors” to funnel more than $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Renacci and Mandel during the 2012 election cycle.
The company that Suarez launched out of his home in Canton in the 1970s, Suarez Corp. Industries (SCI), also is named in the nine-count federal indictment.
Renacci’s spokeswoman, Megan Taylor, said late Thursday that he had not been subpoenaed “and is not the subject or target of this investigation.”
A spokeswoman with Mandel’s office, Rebecca Wasserstein, said by email that “Neither Treasurer Mandel nor anyone associated with him has done anything improper or been accused of any wrongdoing and our cooperation with the authorities will continue.”
Both men long ago returned the campaign contributions in question and neither has been accused of any wrongdoing.
Indicted co-conspirator Michael R. Giorgio, SCI’s chief financial officer, pleaded guilty Monday to seven counts of violating federal campaign financing laws. He has agreed to testify against Suarez under terms of his 26-page plea deal.
“None of it is true,” Suarez told the Beacon Journal in an interview Wednesday. “There will be major announcements coming out that will prove all of that very shortly.”
He said his defense team is not permitting him to elaborate on any details at this time.
“All I can tell you is that [Giorgio’s] entire plea is false, and I have done nothing illegal, and it’ll be proven shortly,” Suarez said.
According to the government motion, the FBI investigation learned that Suarez and Giorgio attempted to disguise SCI’s reimbursements to the straw donors, first as salary, then as profit sharing, and later — after the alleged scheme was uncovered — as purported “advances” on future profit sharing.
Giorgio, 62, declined to comment on any aspect of the case when contacted at his Cuyahoga Falls home.
The heart of the government’s case is based on charges that Suarez, in personal directions to Giorgio, devised a criminal plan to use company employees, their wives and some Suarez family members to write a bundle of $5,000 contribution checks to the Renacci and Mandel campaigns.
Those alleged acts were “only one component of their larger conspiracy to obstruct justice,” the government’s motion stated.
The so-called straw donor payments “afforded [the defendants] access to and favorable treatment from powerful elected officials, who thereafter took official actions on their behalf,” prosecutors said.
Four years ago, using his position as SCI’s chief executive and owner, Suarez solicited donations from his employees to Renacci’s 2010 campaign, prosecutors said. Evidence of such prior activity, they say, “is necessary to complete the story of the [current] charged offense.”
Suarez and SCI, it was explained, were involved in a protracted civil suit demanding millions in damages and restitution by a host of California district attorneys for alleged violations of state consumer protection laws there. The suit was filed in June 2011, and Suarez settled this past January for about $1.8 million.
Both before and after the filing of the California suit, Suarez and Giorgio sought influence and access to public officials — “particularly the 2012 House candidate and 2012 Senate candidate — as a means to short-circuit and ultimately circumvent the litigation,” prosecutors said.
They said that internal SCI documents attempted to conceal Suarez’s request that “the 2012 Senate Candidate use his official position to help end an investigation of SCI” by the consortium of California district attorneys.
There are numerous references in the prosecution motion to the “2012 Senate candidate,” although not specifically naming Mandel.
On May 23, 2011, Mandel sent a letter to California Treasurer Bill Lockyer’s office, asking him to curb potential lawsuits against Suarez’s marketing company, or face a possible lawsuit by Ohio authorities.
In March 2011, Mandel also wrote a letter to Renacci urging him to push for federal legislation limiting damages in cases that allege deceptive advertising and product labeling.
Mandel’s office turned over both letters to a federal grand jury in January 2013, eight months before the Suarez indictment, and later released copies to the Northeast Ohio Media Group.
Mandel was present in the Beacon Journal office headquarters in Akron on Monday for a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board on an unrelated matter. He declined to comment on Giorgio’s plea deal or Suarez’s pending trial.
Suarez’s company, which has made him one of this region’s wealthiest men, advertises and sells a diverse line of products such as jewelry, collectible coins, kitchenware, health-care products and the EdenPure portable heater.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.