CLEVELAND: Ben Suarez was staying at a Cleveland hotel when he got the call Monday that jurors had reached their decision at his federal trial.
He quietly entered the courtroom, dressed in a dark business suit, shortly after 2 p.m. Monday. He was with his wife, Nancy, one of his two daughters, several grandchildren, a boyhood friend and another family friend who is in her 80s.
They all sat closely together in the first two rows of the gallery directly behind the defense table. Suarez had his back turned, facing the bench and made no visible reaction when a succession of not guilty findings began moments later.
Jurors acquitted Suarez, a millionaire Stark County businessman, of all but one charge at his federal trial alleging that he violated campaign finance laws and obstructed justice.
Suarez, 72, was found guilty of a single charge — Count 8 — of obstruction by witness tampering. His global marketing company, Suarez Corp. Industries (SCI) of North Canton, was acquitted of all charges in a separate eight-count indictment.
U.S. District Judge Patricia Gaughan, who has wide latitude in the sentence she can impose, ordered a presentence investigation from probation officials and set sentencing for Oct. 7.
Afterward, as Suarez was leaving the courthouse surrounded by his family and his team of lawyers, a reporter asked him if he felt the verdicts were “a victory.” The lawyers ushered Suarez into the 19th-floor elevator before he could answer.
In numerous telephone calls that Suarez initiated with the Beacon Journal during the monthlong trial and the weeks leading up to it, however, he repeatedly insisted: “I did nothing wrong.”
Jurors convicted Suarez, who originally faced 10 counts, for conduct related to his communications with Barb Housos, the longtime controller at SCI. Prosecutors accused him of having a one-page, handwritten note delivered to Housos, along with a five-page typewritten letter that also was to go out to SCI’s 500-plus workers during the federal investigation.
The letter openly questioned Housos’ mental health and memory while she was undergoing cancer treatment. Lawyers from both sides said the letter was insensitive, but the defense argued at trial that it was not criminal in nature or intent.
After the verdicts were read, lead defense lawyer Mark Schamel told the judge that Suarez will appeal his guilty verdict.
“There was no crime,” Schamel said afterward, referring to the not guilty findings in all of the preceding charges leading up to Count 8.
The letters, prosecutors said, were part of Suarez’s efforts to dissuade Housos from testifying about the campaign contributions.
Steven M. Dettelbach, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, said his office accepts the jury’s verdict but didn’t agree with all of it. He followed up by praising the U.S. justice system, calling it “the envy of all the world.”
He said Suarez “didn’t see it that way, which is why he stands convicted as a felon for willfully seeking to subvert that very system.”
Jurors deliberated for 10-plus hours over parts of Friday and Monday. They left the courthouse together, accompanied by a court official, and none had any comments as they all filed into the elevator.
In their indictment in September, prosecutors accused Suarez of directing an illegal scheme to raise about $200,000 for the 2012 GOP re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and the failed U.S. Senate bid of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
It is illegal to make campaign contributions in the name of another, or for a corporation to contribute to any campaign for federal office.
Renacci’s campaign received $90,000 in the spring of 2011, and Mandel’s received $100,000 several weeks later, prosecutors said.
Neither Renacci nor Mandel was accused of any wrongdoing, and both campaigns long ago returned the contributions.
‘Straw donors’ alleged
The heart of the government’s case was that Suarez used “straw donors” from the upper echelon of SCI management, along with many of their spouses, to funnel the donations to Renacci and Mandel. His motive, prosecutors said, was to get the elected officials to intervene with state officials over a civil lawsuit filed in California alleging massive consumer fraud in the advertising of SCI products there.
Suarez settled the California case in January for the sum of $1.8 million.
The Toledo Blade was the first newspaper to report on the Renacci and Mandel contributions — on Aug. 19, 2011 — and shortly afterward, the FBI launched what would become a two-year investigation of Suarez, his company and his right-hand man, Michael Giorgio.
Brian Pierce, the Akron attorney who delivered the June 4 opening statement for Suarez, said his appeal most likely will focus on an argument of “insufficient evidence” to support even the one guilty verdict.
“This whole case,” Pierce said, “the jury saw through it.”
He said that prosecutors, over a nearly three-year period from the beginning of the FBI probe to Monday’s verdict, “brought an election fraud case against Mr. Suarez that the jury very clearly felt was unwarranted. And the sole conviction is based on a letter to a friend of his for 38 years, and he said in the letter that he was trying to help her and would never do anything to harm her.”
Tony Fernandez, 74, who grew up with Suarez in the same Canton neighborhood, flashed a thumbs-up signal to his old friend when the verdicts were read.
“I think what the government did is a sin,” Fernandez said. “It’s ridiculous that this much effort was put into this thing against a good guy. Don’t they understand? Ben is SCI.”
If Suarez is sent to prison, Fernandez said, “they’re going to put 500-plus people at SCI out of a job.”
Giorgio, SCI’s former chief financial officer and the government’s star witness, turned his back on a joint defense agreement with Suarez one week before the trial began and pleaded guilty to eight felony counts for his alleged role in the case. He is awaiting sentencing.
Attorneys for Suarez got Giorgio to admit on the witness stand that he lied about a significant part of his 26-page plea agreement. It stated that Suarez had directed him to solicit the contributions from top SCI executives “and their spouses.”
Giorgio, however, testified that he did not receive any such directive from Suarez. He told jurors he decided to approach the spouses on his own.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or email@example.com.