CLEVELAND -- Lawyers for a northeast Ohio businessman accused of violating federal campaign finance laws defended their client as a rich but unsophisticated entrepreneur at his trial Wednesday, while prosecutors painted him as a savvy political operative who took extraordinary steps to cover up an illegal campaign scheme.
Ben Suarez, 72, owner of a North Canton-based telemarketing firm, is on trial in U.S. District Court in Cleveland on charges that include conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws, obstruction and witness tampering. He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon said in her opening statement that the government's case is about power and money. She told the jury that Suarez bundled donations of $100,000 each to the 2012 campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and to the failed U.S. Senate bid of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, hoping they would help in a civil complaint about to be filed in California against his company, Suarez Corporation Industries.
In 2011, Rendon said, Suarez and a top company official asked employees and others, including Suarez's daughters and sons-in-law, to each make the maximum donations of $5,000 to one or both of the politicians, amounts that were quickly reimbursed by the company, which would be a violation of federal campaign finance laws.
Suarez then tried to hide the reimbursement from authorities after newspapers stories about the donations led to an FBI probe, Rendon said. She said Suarez knew what he was doing when he bundled the donations, hiding from investigators and a grand jury correspondence between him and the politicians' offices and campaigns.
In the California dispute, both Mandel and Renacci sent letters on Suarez's behalf in 2011.
"That kind of immediate attention doesn't happen for everyone every day," Rendon said. Suarez Corporation eventually settled with 10 district attorneys in California.
Brian Pierce, one of Suarez's attorneys, said in his opening statement that the defense is not disputing that employees were advanced the amounts they donated and that they were repaid the amounts. Pierce called the amounts an advance that would eventually be deducted from their profit-sharing checks, which were typically paid out in the fall.
Pierce painted Suarez as the humble son of immigrants who lifted himself up and started his company out of his garage. He said Suarez is unsophisticated, does not use computers or email and has stepped back from his role at the company in the past 10 years, leaving the day-to-day operations to Michael Giorgio, his chief financial officer.
Giorgio had been a co-defendant in the case, but last month, he pleaded guilty to some of the same charges Suarez faces in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Pierce called Giorgio prosecutors' "star witness," saying that Giorgio denied for three years that he and Suarez had done anything wrong, but changed his mind when he learned an examination by a forensic accountant uncovered evidence Giorgio was stealing from the company and feared the potential criminal ramifications of that theft.