Attorneys: Star witness in trial stole from firm

MARK GILLISPIE ASSOCIATED PRESS Published:

CLEVELAND -- Embezzlement allegations against a star prosecution witness could figure in the case of a northeast Ohio businessman accused of violating federal campaign finance laws after his trial resumes Wednesday.

The trial for Ben Suarez, the millionaire owner of a North Canton telemarketing firm, began Monday in federal court in Cleveland. He is accused of using employees and others to funnel $100,000 each to the 2012 campaigns of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and the failed U.S. Senate bid of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. Both politicians are Republicans.

Suarez, 72, and a co-defendant were accused of having employees of Suarez Corporation Industries and others donate to the campaigns and then quickly reimbursing the employees using company funds.

U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Gaughan said in court Monday that Suarez's attorneys will be allowed to ask former Suarez Corporation chief financial officer Michael Giorgio about allegations that he embezzled more than $1 million from the company over 17 years. Giorgio pleaded guilty last month to some of the same charges Suarez faces and has agreed to testify against his former boss in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.

The court filing accuses Giorgio of pleading guilty because he was afraid he might be charged criminally in connection with the alleged embezzlement and could have faced a long prison sentence.

Suarez attorney Mark Schamel has said his client is innocent of all charges, which include conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, contributions in others' names, corporate contributions, causing false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He declined to comment Tuesday about the court filing.

Calls to Giorgio's attorneys were not returned.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cleveland declined to comment. He said federal prosecutors would be filing a response to the defense motion under seal.

An indictment accused Suarez and Giorgio of bundling contributions to Mandel and Renacci in the hope they would help him with a consumer protection lawsuit filed against his company by 10 district attorneys in California. Letters obtained by The Associated Press show that both politicians wrote letters on Suarez's behalf. Mandel wrote a letter to the California state treasurer. Renacci sent a letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich along with a copy of a letter sent to Renacci by Suarez.

Mandel and Renacci have not been accused of any wrongdoing. Spokeswomen for both have said the politicians continue to cooperate with authorities.

The two campaigns returned the contributions totaling about $100,000 each after learning of an FBI investigation into the donations.

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