- Associated Press - Monday, June 2, 2014

CLEVELAND (AP) - Two prominent Ohio politicians have been subpoenaed to possibly testify in a trial that began Monday for a northeast Ohio businessman accused of funneling illegal campaign contributions to their campaigns in the hope they would help him with an expensive California lawsuit, The Associated Press has learned.

Millionaire businessman Benjamin Suarez, president of North Canton-based Suarez Corporation Industries, is accused of using employees and others as conduits to illegally contribute about $100,000 each to the 2012 re-election campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. James Renacci and to the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, also a Republican.

Sources with direct knowledge of the case say Suarez’s defense attorneys have issued subpoenas to Mandel and Renacci. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Neither politician has been accused of wrongdoing. The issuance of subpoenas does not mean they will be called to testify at the trial in federal court. The subpoenas were first reported by The Columbus Dispatch.

Spokeswomen said both continue to cooperate with authorities. The campaigns returned the contributions after learning of the allegations against Suarez and his company.

A jury was seated in the trial Monday afternoon, with opening arguments scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Suarez, 72, could face as many as 12 years if convicted of all counts, which include conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, contributions in others’ names, corporate contributions, causing false statements and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Defense attorney Mark Schamel has said Suarez is innocent and that his client looks forward to being vindicated at trial.

One of the charges in the indictment accuses Suarez of covering up his request for Mandel and Renacci’s help by failing to give investigators and a grand jury correspondence sent to and from the politicians’ offices in 2011.

Suarez Corporation was engaged in a legal battle with 10 district attorneys in California who alleged the company was engaged in deceptive business practices. The telemarketing company settled the complaint in January.

A letter sent to Mandel’s counterpart in California, Treasurer Bill Lockyer, around the time the donations were made said the litigation had become so expensive for the company that it could cost Ohio 561 jobs. The letter also said that if a resolution could not be reached, Mandel would urge the Ohio attorney general to sue the California prosecutors.

A Mandel campaign official, Rebecca Wasserstein, said Mandel did nothing improper. She said there was no connection between the letters Mandel sent and the contributions to his Senate campaign. She said Mandel had not been notified that he would be called to testify.

“Our cooperation with the authorities is ongoing and leads us to believe that if Treasurer Mandel testified, it would be damaging to the defense,” Wasserstein said.

Mandel also wrote Renacci asking him to craft a bill that would limit how states can enforce laws on advertising and product labeling for goods sold nationally, the letter shows. Renacci spokeswoman Megan Taylor has said the congressman never wrote such a bill or asked any of his colleagues to do so.

Renacci did sign a letter sent to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and forwarded to the governor one signed by Suarez that detailed the California case, according to the letter. The letter acknowledged that consumer protection laws are a state matter but urged Kasich to work with California Gov. Jerry Brown to find “a commonsense solution” that protects businesses everywhere. Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor did not contact Brown.

Copies of the letters were obtained by the AP.

Suarez’s co-defendant, Michael Giorgio, the company’s chief financial officer, pleaded guilty last month and is expected to testify against Suarez in exchange for a reduced sentence.

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