The trial of the Northeast Ohio businessman accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the political campaigns of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and Congressman Jim Renacci gets underway today.
For Ohio Public Radio, WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports that the trial will focus on allegations of straw donors and of what Ben Suarez expected and got in return for the political contributions.
Neither of the politicians, Josh Mandel nor Jim Renacci, have been charged in the case. But both are expected to loom large over the month-long trial in federal court in Cleveland.
That’s because Suarez and his North Canton company are accused of channeling $200,000 in illegal contributions to Mandel’s Senate campaign and Renacci’s congressional campaign. The contributions came from Suarez employees and their spouses, and the charges say he reimbursed them with payments disguised as payroll and profit sharing.
The U.S. attorneys office notes that, at the time, Suarez was involved in a $6 million legal battle in California over claims of deceptive advertising.
Mandel wrote a letter to the California treasurer, claiming the state was engaging in “prosecutorial abuses” and threatening to push Ohio’s attorney general to sue California if there were no “cooperative resolution.” Days after that letter, Mandel’s U.S. Senate campaign started getting donations from the Suarez employees.
Mandel and Renacci have denied they did anything wrong and they’ve returned the donations.
The federal charges are against Suarez, Suarez Corporation Industries and the company’s CFO—Michael Giorgio. Two weeks ago, Giorgio abruptly changed his plea and promised to cooperate.
The 72-year-old Suarez insists he’s innocent and turned down a deal that could have meant as little as 2 ½ years in prison. If convicted, he faces a sentence of more than 12 years.