CLEVELAND (AP) — A northeast Ohio telemarketing millionaire was convicted Monday by a federal court jury of witness tampering but was acquitted on more serious charges of illegally funneling campaign donations to two Republican politicians.
Ben Suarez, 72, the owner of Suarez Corporation Industries in North Canton, could have received 12 years in prison if convicted on all of the eight counts he faced. He was acquitted of conspiracy to violate federal campaign finance laws, corporate donations, donations in others' names, conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and three counts of false statements. Two counts of obstruction of justice were dismissed during the trial for insufficient evidence.
The jurors reached their verdict after deliberating a day-and-a-half. All declined to comment afterward.
Suarez's lead attorney, Mark Schamel, said there were plans to appeal the witness tampering conviction, which involved two letters and a phone call to a longtime employee.
Schamel said throughout the monthlong trial that Suarez was innocent because he didn't willfully break the law when he had his company repay former employees, relatives and others who had donated to the 2012 campaign of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and the failed U.S. Senate bid of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
"They brought a campaign finance case they couldn't prove," Schamel said.
Federal prosecutors argued that Suarez was politically savvy and a longtime contributor to Republican and conservative causes. The government's star witness was Michael Giorgio, the former chief financial officer for Suarez Corporation Industries. He pleaded guilty in May to some of the same charges for which Suarez was acquitted.
Giorgio agreed to testify against his former boss in exchange for a lighter sentence. He testified he knew it was illegal for the company to reimburse people who had been asked to donate. Giorgio testified that he and Suarez devised a scheme to collect the money back from employees after learning about an FBI probe.
"I knew right off the bat what we're doing wasn't right," Giorgio said.
Schamel argued at trial that Giorgio did not commit any crimes, and if Giorgio is innocent, so is Suarez.
Steven Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, said he did not agree with the entire verdict, but added that the witness tampering conviction showed Suarez tried to subvert justice.
The case began after an article in The (Toledo) Blade in 2011 about numerous contributions made to the Renacci and Mandel campaigns that year. The politicians' campaigns received a total of $100,000 each in just a matter of days. Prosecutors accused Suarez of bundling the donations in the hope the politicians would help his company with a costly consumer protection complaint in California.
Renacci and Mandel wrote letters on behalf of Suarez's company, but neither politician was accused of wrongdoing and their campaigns returned the donations after learning about the FBI probe.
Renacci and Mandel were among a number of Republicans subpoenaed in the case, but they were not called to testify. Others included Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
Suarez's sentencing for the witness tampering conviction is scheduled for Oct. 7.