- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - An Ohio company whose Republican owner spent more than a year in prison following a campaign finance probe has organized employees and suppliers in a retaliatory effort to bring down two prominent Democrats, The Associated Press has learned.

An explosive memo posted online lays out The Justice Association LLC’s strategy for an investigation, lawsuit and ad campaign targeting U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and former U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, the Democratic nominee for attorney general. It calls them “chief culprits” in a vast effort by Democrats to unjustly prosecute Republican-owned companies under former President Barack Obama.

The month-old association is offering “rewards” of up to $100,000 for any supporting evidence it could use to request a grand jury investigation by Republican U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican gubernatorial nominee.

The evidence also would be folded into a class-action racketeering lawsuit against the Obama-era Justice Department, alleging it politicized prosecutions.

Suarez Corp. Industries is behind the effort. Its CEO, Benjamin Suarez, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for witness tampering in a 2014 investigation by Dettelbach’s office and the FBI. He was acquitted of seven additional charges. The company’s chief financial officer, Michael Giorgio, was sentenced to 27 months for campaign finance fraud.

The Suarez probe centered on campaign contributions made by employees, relatives and others to the 2012 campaigns of Republican Josh Mandel, Brown’s then-Senate challenger, and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, Brown’s current rival. Suarez had sought the politicians’ help in fighting a California consumer practices complaint. Neither candidate was implicated.

The Justice Association effort was formed to seek restitution for financial impacts the company ties in part to the prosecution, including 800 Suarez job losses and 2,000 job losses at Suarez suppliers, the memo says. Suarez Corporation filed for bankruptcy protection in August.

The memo also describes a massive political advertising campaign on “all media channels across Ohio, on TV, radio, the internet, newspapers and other media.” It wasn’t immediately clear how The Justice Association could mount such a campaign without a political action committee.

Suarez’s company launched the association’s website in February, records show, about a month after Renacci entered the Senate race. The association was incorporated in May. It shares an address with Suarez Corporation Industries and its executive director, Jennifer Werner, has a Suarez phone number. She didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Suarez, who describes his company as a multi-channel marketing and manufacturing business, said in an email Wednesday that “our association is not associated with any candidate running for office.”

The memo is laced with personal attacks on people who Suarez alleges acted illegally or unethically during his prosecution.

It calls Dettelbach’s then-first assistant, Carole Rendon, “Crazy Carole” and says she has “major mental problems, in part due to a complex because she is very short in stature.” It says Judge Patricia Gaughan is “incompetent, cruel” and “enjoys human suffering.” Rendon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Gaughan’s office said ethics restrictions prevented her from commenting.

Dettelbach, who faces Republican Auditor Dave Yost this fall, said he was not surprised that Suarez would go after him.

“I have heard it all before. It comes with the job,” he said in a statement. “When you hold powerful people accountable, sometimes they come after you.”

Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland, declined to comment - but Dettelbach defended the operation, calling the memo’s comments against a federal judge and career prosecutors “misplaced, untrue and unfair.”

Besides alleging “a politically motivated, false and malicious prosecution” of Suarez, the memo shed new light on Suarez’s political activities during the 2000s election.

It says two political action committees Suarez formed in the early 2000s - the US Citizens Association and Empowered Citizens Network - began running hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising against Democrats in 2003.

“Their ads used the advanced and effective advertising methods of Suarez Corporation Industries, which are considered to be the best in the nation,” the memo says.

US Citizens Association ran full-page ads in the Canton Repository and other area newspapers in 2009 opposing then-U.S. Rep. John Boccieri, a Democrat, and favoring Renacci. Boccieri lost his seat and the memo says Renacci credited the ads for his election.

According to the memo, “Benjamin Suarez was informed by several high ranking members of the Ohio Republican Party that the Democrats were livid and Suarez and his company were marked for punishment.”

Boccieri said the memo seemed to validate “serious concerns” he had at the time that Renacci and Suarez were coordinating attack ads against him.

“In the fog of war of these political battles, we just didn’t know where it was coming from,” he said.

Brown campaign spokesman Preston Maddock said, “Congressman Renacci owes Ohioans answers about his long association with Suarez and if he continues to benefit from their relationship as this letter suggests.”

A spokeswoman for Renacci’s campaign flatly rejected that claim, saying it’s another example of Ohio Democrats “recycling the same false attacks” since Renacci first ran for office.

“We had no idea this group existed until we read about it in your story,” Leslie Shedd, senior communications adviser for Renacci’s campaign, told The Associated Press. “For Brown’s campaign to claim there is a ‘long association’ is not just misleading - it’s an outright lie.”

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Follow Julie Carr Smyth at http://www.twitter.com/jsmyth


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