CLEVELAND: Stark County businessman Benjamin Suarez and associate Michael Giorgio have been named in an eight-count indictment alleging conspiracy to violate federal campaign finance laws, obstruction of justice and witness tampering, authorities said.
The indictment was announced Wednesday by the Cleveland office of U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach and the FBI.
A spokesman for Dettelbach said the indictment is based on allegations that Suarez, 72, of Jackson Township, and Giorgio, 61, of Cuyahoga Falls, conspired to funnel about $200,000 in what is known as “conduit contributions” to Ohio candidates for 2012 races for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.
Stephen D. Anthony, special agent of the FBI office in Cleveland, said Suarez and Giorgio, his chief financial officer in a company that was unnamed in the indictment, “engaged in behavior and blatantly ignored and directly circumvented clearly established campaign finance laws.”
Suarez is president of Suarez Corp. Industries (SIC), a Jackson Township-based marketing firm that sells numerous products such as the EdenPure space heater, collectible coins and cookware.
He has a long history in Stark County, dating to the 1970s when he came into conflict with the U.S. Postal Service and Food and Drug Administration over diet breads and book publishing.
Attorneys for the firm released a statement following release of the indictment, saying the company was disappointed over the federal grand jury’s decision to charge Suarez and Giorgio.
The action “did not involve company business operations and will have little impact on the continuing execution of SCI’s long-term business strategy,” the statement said.
It went on to say that the company has “faith and respect for the judicial system” and is confident that the two executives will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
Suarez and Giorgio both made initial appearances with their attorneys in federal court in Akron Wednesday morning. They pleaded not guilty to the charges and were released on bond.
FBI probe revealed
The federal investigation was first revealed publicly May 18, 2012, in a story by the New Republic magazine in which an employee said the FBI was investigating the campaign contributions.
Although the names of the U.S. Senate and House candidates were not identified in Wednesday’s indictment, the Toledo Blade reported in August 2011 that 16 employees of Suarez Corp., along with some of their spouses, gave the maximum allowable contributions to one or both of the Republican campaigns of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel, currently state treasurer.
Suarez subsequently denied any wrongdoing in an interview with the Canton Repository, calling the FBI investigation “punishment because we’re Republican donors.”
In 2011, an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act limited contributions from one individual to one candidate for primary and general election campaigns to $2,500 each, for a total of $5,000.
According to details in Wednesday’s indictment, Suarez agreed to raise $100,000 for an Ohio candidate for the 2012 U.S. Senate race and $100,000 for an Ohio candidate for the 2012 House race.
Suarez and Giorgio then recruited individuals who worked for, or were associated with their company, to serve as “conduit contributors,” meaning contributions were made in those names and those of their spouses.
The indictment further states that Giorgio, acting at the direction of Suarez, informed the contributors they would be fully reimbursed by the company.
Suarez and Giorgio then ensured, both directly and indirectly, that the company did reimburse the contributors by disguising the payments, first, as salary, then as profit-sharing.
The payments, including those to spouses, were “grossed up” to cover payroll and other taxes so the full amount of the contribution would be reimbursed, according to the indictment.
Suarez and Giorgio disguised and concealed the amount and source of the contributions, along with the identity of the company, so that the public would be less likely to know the extent of support that Suarez and the company were providing for the Senate and House campaigns, the indictment stated.
The names of the Senate and House candidates were not contained in the 35-page indictment.
However, in a section of the indictment titled “Overt Acts,” federal investigators used five pages of graphs detailing the contributions of the alleged conduits, who were identified only by their initials.
Those graphs contained 18 contributions, all made in March 2011, to a 2012 House campaign. The graphs also showed 20 additional contributions, all but one made in May 2011, to a 2012 Senate campaign.
Suarez and Giorgio also are accused of conspiring to obstruct justice, from March 2011 to the present, by allegedly failing to turn over documents, records and other evidence subject to federal grand jury subpoenas.
In a charge against Suarez for witness tampering, investigators cited a handwritten note by Suarez and a five-page typewritten document delivered to the home of a witness identified only by initials.
Suarez allegedly used those materials, according to the indictment, to “influence, delay and prevent” the witness testimony before a federal grand jury.
The FBI’s Canton office assisted in the investigation.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at email@example.com.