- Associated Press - Thursday, June 26, 2014

CLEVELAND (AP) - A telemarketing millionaire made a mistake but did not willingly break the law when he funneled campaign contributions to two prominent Republican politicians, defense attorneys told a jury during closing arguments Thursday.

Federal prosecutors countered that Ben Suarez, 72, knew it was illegal for employees, relatives and others to make the donations and then immediately be reimbursed by Suarez’s company.

Jurors were expected to begin deliberations Friday in the monthlong trial.

Suarez is charged with conspiracy to violate federal campaign laws, corporate contributions, contributions in the name of others, false statements, witness tampering and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

U.S. District Court Judge Patrician Gaughan dismissed two counts of obstruction of justice earlier this week.

Prosecutors have accused Suarez, the owner of Suarez Corporation Industries in North Canton, of bundling contributions totaling $100,000 each to the 2012 campaign of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and the failed U.S. Senate bid of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel in the hope they would help his company with a consumer protection complaint in California.

Renacci and Mandel have not been accused of wrongdoing and returned the contributions after learning about an FBI investigation. Defense attorney Mark Schamel, who represents Suarez, said the government’s star witness, former Suarez Corporation chief financial officer Michael Giorgio, also is innocent despite having pleaded guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.

“If Michael Giorgio is not guilty, Benjamin Suarez certainly isn’t,” Schamel told jurors.

Ian Friedman, who represents Suarez Corporation, which also is charged criminally in the case, told jurors Suarez wouldn’t have knowingly exposed family members to criminal liability by asking them to donate to the campaigns.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon countered that Giorgio pleaded guilty because he knew corporate contributions were illegal when he helped Suarez recruit contributors. Rendon said Suarez and Giorgio engaged in a cover-up after The Toledo Blade wrote about the donations.

Rendon told jurors that Suarez’s relatives insisted on immunity before testifying for the government.

“They were afraid their own testimony would incriminate themselves,” Rendon said.

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