June 10--CLEVELAND -- Ben Suarez's defense in his continuing federal trial is based on two essential points in connection the campaign finance laws he is accused of violating.
His lawyers have taken the position with witnesses that Suarez did not "willingly" violate the laws, and that he did not "knowingly" commit any criminal acts when contributions from his company, Suarez Corp. Industries (SCI), began flowing into the GOP campaigns of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel in the spring of 2011.
Since late Monday afternoon, several prosecution witnesses who made the donations told the jury they contributed $5,000 to one or both candidates, and that they were, in fact, quickly reimbursed by SCI in matching amounts.
Renacci's campaign received $90,000, and Mandel's $100,000, prosecutors said.
Both campaigns later returned the money and neither elected official has been accused of any wrongdoing.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday afternoon that Renacci wants U.S. Judge Patricia A. Gaughan to quash a subpoena and prevent him from being called to testify at the trial.
The witnesses called so far also have acknowledged that after they received the SCI reimbursements, they then paid back SCI after newspaper stories began raising questions in the summer of 2011.
It is illegal, prosecutors have said, for a corporation to contribute to a federal election campaign, or for anyone to make such a contribution in the name of another.
A former SCI advertising copywriter, Sherri Peters-Litton, told the jury Tuesday morning that she contributed $5,000 to the Mandel campaign in the spring of 2011.
She was asked to do so, she said, not by Suarez, but by SCI's former chief financial officer, Michael Giorgio, during a conversation in the hallway of company headquarters in North Canton.
Peters-Litton said Giorgio didn't appear concerned, nor did he look uncomfortable in any way when she was asked to contribute to Mandel, or when Giorgio said she would be paid back.
She also told the jury that Suarez never asked her to make the Mandel contribution -- and never spoke to her about it.
It was only after an August 2011 news story by the Toledo Blade that she had any concern, Peters-Litton said. After seeing her name in the Blade's published list of Renacci/Mandel donors, she said she talked to her mother and had this reaction: "Uh, oh!"
Antonio "Tony" Fernandez, who grew up with Suarez in the same neighborhood in Canton, testified that he has known the millionaire Stark County businessman for more than 50 years.
Fernandez said he once worked as a meat cutter in an A&P grocery store and got Suarez a job there, too. Suarez was working his way through the University of Akron.
When asked if it was fair to say that he and Suarez were best friends, Fernandez replied: "I would like to believe that."
After losing his grocery store job, Fernandez said, Suarez offered him a job at SCI "and I took it."
Fernandez said he worked as a product developer for the global marketing firm for 24 years, and went into semi-retirement about 10 years ago.
Soon after he began working at SCI, he said he met the company controller and accounting manager, Barb Housos. They had a long relationship and were married just two weeks ago.
"I don't like to rush into things," Fernandez told the jury, drawing one of the rare instances of laughter since the trial began June 2.
Fernandez testified that it was Housos, now ill with cancer, who asked him to contribute $5,000 to the Renacci campaign. It was a brief conversation in which she asked: "Are you willing to donate to a political campaign?" Fernandez said. "I said, 'If you are, I will.'
"I just took it for granted it might benefit SCI," Fernandez said, explaining that he felt Renacci was "a legit candidate and would do a good job to help small businesses."
Fernandez said he later saw Renacci at the old Hoover Co. building, where Suarez held a grand-opening event to kick off production of one of his products, the EdenPure heater.
When prosecutors asked him his reaction at seeing Renacci there, Fernandez replied: "I thought my $5,000 was going to good use."
Fernandez told the jury repeatedly that he had no discussions with Suarez about the Mandel contribution, nor politics in general. "Never. Not with me," he said.
"Even to this day," Fernandez said in defense questioning, "I just can't comprehend that this is something wrong. I'm not an attorney, but hey, I figure it's my money, it's his money, we earned it. We didn't steal it," he said.
Giorgio is expected to be the prosecution's key witness against Suarez, but there is no indication when he will testify.
Two weeks before the trial began, Giorgio suddenly walked away from a joint defense agreement with Suarez and worked out a plea deal with the government in connection with seven felony charges.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or email@example.com.
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Original headline: Longtime friend of Suarez among donors to testify Tuesday at federal trial
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