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Published: Friday, 8/19/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Canton firm's workers making unusual donations

BY TONY COOK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Editor's note: This version of the story adds the Ohio Democratic Party's criticism of the Mandel campaign.

Benjamin Suarez of Canton, Ohio. Suarez and his employees have given more than $100,000 to two northeastern Ohio candidates for U.S. Senate and House seats: Josh Mandel and Jim Renacci. Benjamin Suarez of Canton, Ohio. Suarez and his employees have given more than $100,000 to two northeastern Ohio candidates for U.S. Senate and House seats: Josh Mandel and Jim Renacci.
CANTON REPOSITORY Enlarge

When northern Ohio businessman Benjamin Suarez makes a big campaign contribution, few people are surprised. He owns a direct marketing company that does $100 million annually in sales, and he has a history of giving to Republicans.

But in the current election cycle, a large number of his employees and their wives -- many of whom have never before given to federal campaigns -- have contributed to two specific congressional candidates: Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci (R., Wadsworth), who represents Ohio's 16th District.

All together, 17 employees from Canton-based Suarez Corporation have contributed to one or both candidates, according to federal campaign filings. Sixteen of those employees (and six of their spouses) have given $5,000, the maximum amount allowed under federal election law. For some of the employees and their spouses, that adds up to $20,000. In all, Mr. Suarez, his employees, and their spouses gave $100,000 to Mr. Mandel's campaign and $100,250 to Mr. Renacci's campaign.

Mr. Suarez and his wife also gave $30,000 to a political action committee, or PAC, associated with Mr. Mandel, and $10,000 to a PAC associated with Mr. Renacci, bringing the company's total contribution to the two northeastern Ohio candidates to more than $240,000.

Federal campaign finance law does not limit the total amount a company's employees may contribute to a candidate or campaign but does limit individual contributions to $5,000.

Mr. Suarez did not return several messages from The Blade. Neither did the company's attorney or chief financial officer.

The company's spokesman, Lauren Capo, said the company did not reimburse employees or provide money for the contributions, though she later emphasized that she couldn't "speak on the behalf of anyone, other than our brand and products." Federal campaign finance law prohibits a corporation from providing bonuses or salary increases to employees to reimburse them for political contributions.

The Suarez Corporation has 800 associates, according to the company's Web site. The company has six divisions, including Biotech Research, developer of the EdenPURE Heating System, and the United States Collaborative Gallery, which specializes in collectible coins. The company is located in Congressman Renacci's district.

Among the employees who gave, many of them are managers, directors, or executives, according to federal election filings. Some of them, however, list their occupation as "writer," "copywriter," or merely "marketing."

Campaign finance experts said it was especially surprising to see individuals with those titles giving such large amounts.

"A $5,000 contribution from someone who makes $300,000 a year is completely normal," said Paul S. Ryan, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. "A $5,000 campaign contribution from someone who makes $30,000 a year strikes me as unordinary."

The Blade tried to reach employees who gave, but most did not return phone calls.

Michael Schumacher, who is listed as an "IT director" in campaign contribution filings, refused to answer questions about the $5,000 donation he made to Mr. Mandel's campaign. "This is my private stuff," he said. "I don't have to share it with you or anyone else."

Barbara Housos, who is listed as "controller" and "accounting manager," said, "I'm donating because I think something drastic needs to be done in Washington. I think it's going to be up to people like me to do something about it." When asked whether the company provided money or encouraged her to give, she said she couldn't talk about the matter at work.

A review of publicly available Stark County Auditor records shows that about half the employees who contributed to the two campaigns own homes valued at $66,000 to $183,000. Five own homes valued at more than $300,000. Mr. Suarez's home is valued at $2.3 million.

The Blade asked Ms. Capo, the company spokesman, to comment on why so many employees decided to give maximum contributions to these two candidates. She said the Suarez Corporation is "a very close-knit company."

"I can't speak on behalf of those individuals who gave donations," she said. "But I can assure you they are very pro-conservative."

Unlike most of his employees, Mr. Suarez is a longtime financial supporter of Republican causes. In the past, he has given to the campaigns of Mr. Renacci, U.S. Senator George Voinovich, former U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, former President George W. Bush, and others. He also gives heavily to Republican PACs and party committees.

Since 2007, he and his wife have contributed more than $185,000 to political campaigns.

The campaigns of Mr. Mandel and Mr. Renacci dismissed concerns about the Suarez contributions.

Mr. Renacci's chief of staff, James Slepian, said the Suarez employee donations were related to the congressman's fund-raiser in June. "These events often draw in new donors and/or individuals who give at a higher level than they had in the past," he said.

Mr. Mandel's campaign spokesman, Joe Aquilino, said, "We give each potential donor information on campaign finance laws and we have no reason to believe that any of the thousands of contributions we receive are improper."

Other politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, also receive large amounts of money from certain companies, Mr. Aquilino said. For example, Mr. Brown received $30,400 from employees at Thornton & Nuames LLP, a Boston-based law firm specializing in personal injury, Mr. Aquilino said. He also said Mr. Brown received $31,455 from attorneys at Schwarzwald & McNair LLP, an Ohio-based law firm.

The Ohio Democratic Party criticized the Mandel campaign in a statement Friday.

“Today’s report that Josh Mandel received $100,000 dollars in questionable contributions from workers in a Canton-based company, many of whom had almost no history of political giving, is very troubling and there are serious ethical and legal questions that should be answered,” Justin Barasky, party spokesman, said. “Frankly, all of this smells worse than milk that's been left in a refrigerator for more than 90 days and it's extremely troubling that Josh Mandel’s immediate reaction has been to try and sweep this under the rug.”

 

Contact Tony Cook at: tcook@theblade.com, or 419-724-6065.



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