Ed Meyer

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci have been subpoenaed to testify in the federal trial of a millionaire Stark County businessman accused of making illegal contributions to their campaigns.

The trial of Benjamin Suarez, 72, is set to begin Monday in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.

Top aides to both politicians responded Friday to a Columbus Dispatch report on the subpoenas, saying Mandel and Renacci have cooperated fully with federal authorities and will continue to do so.

Rebecca Wasserstein, an aide to Mandel, sent an emailed statement to the Beacon Journal late Friday following the Dispatch story, saying neither the defense nor the prosecution has notified Mandel that he will, in fact, be called to testify in court proceedings.

“Our cooperation with the authorities is ongoing and leads us to believe that if Treasurer Mandel testified, it would be damaging to the defense,” the statement said.

Megan Taylor, a spokesperson for Renacci, also responded in an email, saying the Republican congressman from Wadsworth “is not the subject or target of this investigation.”

Renacci has “fully cooperated with the U.S. Department of Justice,” the statement said, “and will continue to do so if asked.”

Meanwhile, Suarez is hoping to use a former head of the Federal Elections Commission to fight the charges that he was the brains behind an alleged scheme to violate federal campaign finance laws.

That strategy was revealed this week in pretrial records that his defense team filed.

Suarez and the worldwide global marketing company that he started out of his home in the 1970s, Suarez Corp. Industries (SCI), are the remaining defendants in a nine-count federal indictment.

Officer pleads guilty

Michael Giorgio, chief financial officer of SCI and Suarez’s right-hand man, pleaded guilty this month to seven charges of being part of a plan to funnel about $200,000 to the 2012 Republican election campaigns of Mandel and Renacci.

Both men later returned the donations.

In the May 19 plea, a deal that suddenly took shape the previous Sunday night, according to court records, Giorgio turned his back on what had been a “joint defense agreement” with Suarez since both were indicted by a federal grand jury last September.

Three days after Giorgio’s plea, Suarez’s lawyers fought back.

They sent prosecutors a letter informing them that Capital University Law School professor Bradley A. Smith of Columbus might be called as an expert witness to challenge the allegations.

Smith, who was nominated as an FEC commissioner in early 2000 by President Bill Clinton, and later confirmed by the U.S. Senate, served as FEC chairman in 2004 and vice chairman in 2003.

The heart of the prosecution’s case involves allegations that Suarez violated laws in the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1972, which directly gave rise three years later to the nation’s top independent regulatory agency overseeing that legislation — the FEC.

Suarez, the charges claim, used nearly two-dozen employees and their spouses, so-called “straw donors,” to contribute to the Renacci and Mandel campaigns.

Those donors each wrote $5,000 campaign contribution checks with the expectation that they would be reimbursed by SCI, Giorgio said in his written plea deal.

Giorgio and SCI’s controller, Barbara Housos of Canton, are expected to be the prosecution’s key witnesses against Suarez.

Confusion blamed

Smith is prepared to testify, however, that federal campaign laws are confusing for people who are not politicians or have no formal training in that area of the law, court records show.

In a court filing attached to the records as “Exhibit A,” defense lawyers say Smith will offer an opinion that people who are not educated in such a way “often misunderstand these laws or are not aware of them.”

Smith’s opinion will go on to say: “This is true of the law addressing campaign contributions in the name of another. It is also true of the law addressing the use of corporate funds to make direct contributions to the campaigns of candidates for elected federal offices.”

Suarez repeatedly has insisted he has done nothing wrong and, in fact, rejected a plea offer this week. If he would have agreed to it, he would have faced a sentence of about four to five years in prison.

Prosecutors countered the defense notification to use Smith as an expert witness by arguing that Suarez’s lawyers far exceeded the deadline for giving notice of such testimony.

U.S. Judge Patricia A. Gaughan, who is handling the trial, will have the final say on Smith’s potential expert testimony.

On May 23, the Beacon Journal first reported that Mandel and Renacci could be subpoenaed to testify, citing a 2011 letter that Mandel sent on behalf of Suarez to the state treasurer of California.

Suarez was facing a multimillion-dollar civil suit there for alleged violations of consumer protection laws, and Mandel’s letter asked the California treasurer to curb such actions or face a possible lawsuit by Ohio authorities.

Mandel’s letter was dated May 23, 2011, and the campaign contributions from SCI employees and spouses began pouring in days later.

In March 2011, Mandel also sent a letter to Renacci urging him to push for federal legislation limiting damages in cases of deceptive advertising and product labeling.

Prosecutors have not accused Mandel or Renacci of any wrongdoing.

If Suarez is convicted of the charges, he could face a sentence of 10 to 12 years in a federal prison and a fine of nearly $1 million. His trial is expected to last at least three weeks.

Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at emeyer@thebeaconjournal.com.