CLEVELAND: Jurors were asked Thursday to not believe a key witness’s guilty plea and use that to find a North Canton businessman innocent of violating U.S. campaign finance laws.
The request was repeated throughout defense attorney Mark Schamel’s closing argument on behalf of Ben Suarez, the multi-millionaire facing more than a decade in prison if convicted of orchestrating the contributions.
Jurors will start to deliberate the eight counts against Suarez this morning in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.
Schamel focused his nearly one-hour argument on co-defendant Michael Giorgio, the former chief financial officer of Suarez Corp. Industries. Giorgio’s unexpected guilty plea on the eve of trial threw a wrench into the defense case and bolstered the efforts of U.S. attorneys.
But Schamel said that guilty plea is bogus and he essentially argued to jurors that Giorgio is really innocent.
“Michael Giorgio is not guilty of what he pled guilty to,” Schamel told jurors. “And if Michael Giorgio is not guilty, Ben Suarez is not guilty.”
Schamel told jurors over and over that the nearly $200,000 in donations raised through SCI employees for the 2011 campaigns of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and Rep. Jim Renacci at the behest of Suarez and Giorgio was merely a mistake, one made with no intent to commit a crime.
He scoffed at the notion that Suarez would risk everything — his freedom, the business he built from scratch while also placing his friends and children in legal jeopardy — all over campaign donations that he could have easily concealed in other ways, had he actually had criminal intent.
“They’re making a federal case where there isn’t one,” Schamel said.
Federal prosecutors urged jurors not to buy into the defense. They say Suarez intended to circumvent campaign finance laws and then went to extremes to cover up the illegal contributions by claiming the nearly two dozen SCI executives were not repaid, but rather given early profit sharing payments for their and their spouses $5,000 donations.
Prosecutors say Suarez made the payments in an effort to garner the politicians’ influence and intervention in a costly litigation being waged against his company by California state attorneys.
Suarez “had a problem and that problem was California,” assistant U.S. attorney Rebecca Lutzko told jurors. “He thought he could fix it with money.”
She said Suarez had another problem: His political contribution limits were maxed out and he “couldn’t give the politicians what they were asking for.”
The government contends that Suarez, 72, individually and through his corporation, funneled nearly $200,000 to the 2012 campaigns of Renacci and Mandel by using “straw donors.”
Renacci was running for re-election; Mandel was attempting to win the U.S. Senate seat held by Sherrod Brown. Both candidates supported by Suarez are Republicans.
Prosecutors said the Mandel campaign contacted Suarez in March 2011 seeking $100,000 to help bolster the coffers in part to obtain matching funds.
Suarez, prosecutors contend, needed help and he knew “money buys access” to politicians.
“He’s buying access to politicians to help himself and SCI with its problem in California,” Lutzko said.
Indeed, Mandel later wrote a letter to California attorneys on behalf of SCI.
After the contributions were exposed by a reporter with the Toledo Blade in August 2011, prosecutors say Suarez went into cover-up mode. The politicians returned the money.
Suarez then “cooked the books” and concealed the “true facts by trying to rewrite them,” Lutzko said. The prosecutor said Suarez also tried to circumvent federal campaign laws “by creating his own rules.”
Suarez is accused of eight counts, including conspiring to violate campaign finance laws and obstructing the investigation. Earlier this week, Judge Patricia Gaughan dismissed two counts of obstruction that prosecutors also had filed. SCI is accused of one campaign violation.
Giorgio was fired after he changed his plea last month. He had pleaded guilty to the same counts Suarez originally faced in a deal that included his cooperation with prosecutors. But Schamel told jurors that Giorgio made the plea not out of guilt, but rather out of fear.
He said that Giorgio made a mistake, but his mistake was not a crime. He said Giorgio was only asked by Suarez in 2011 “to see if” the company executives were willing to donate. And if they needed cash, Suarez suggested the workers be advanced a portion of their normal quarterly profit-sharing bonus.
“There’s no intent,” Schamel repeated three times to jurors. “Michael Giorgio’s take away [from his initial phone call with Suarez] is where this went wrong.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon said Giorgio is not regretting his change of plea, as defense attorneys contend. He pleaded guilty, she said, for a simple reason.
“Michael Giorgio is guilty. He knows he’s guilty. That’s why he pleaded guilty,” she told jurors.
Schamel said Giorgio misunderstood instructions from Suarez but neither willingly or knowingly committed a crime.
“Willingly” and “knowingly” are key elements in allegations of campaign finance law violations.
“They are rational human beings, and who in the world would do it this way if they knew it was a crime?” Schamel asked jurors. “This is about people not knowing what they did when they did it. … Nobody thought what they were doing was a violation of federal law.”
Neither Renacci nor Mandel has been accused of any illegalities and both campaigns returned the money when federal authorities began their investigation.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.