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Published: Monday, 5/21/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Campaign donations prompt FBI probe

Funds to Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci investigated

BY TONY COOK
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Benjamin Suarez Benjamin Suarez
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Large campaign contributions from a Northern Ohio businessman and his employees to U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel have prompted a federal investigation, the campaigns confirmed Monday.

The probe is centered around more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from employees at the Suarez Corporation, a Canton-based direct marketing firm owned by Benjamin Suarez, a frequent financial supporter of Republican causes. The Blade reported in August that 16 of the company’s employees and some of their spouses gave maximum allowable $5,000 contributions to one or both candidates. Many of the employees had never given to federal campaigns before, lived in modest homes, and held job titles such as “copywriter.”

The investigation began at least four or five months ago, according to James Slepian, chief of staff for Mr. Renacci. That’s when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland requested fund-raising records from Mr. Renacci’s campaign treasurer, he said.

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel
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“We reiterate that to our knowledge no donations our campaign has received were made improperly, but if we find out these or any other donations were given improperly they will be returned immediately,” Mr. Slepian said.

Mr. Mandel’s campaign also confirmed the investigation, but would not say if federal authorities had requested documents from the campaign.

“The campaign is aware of the investigation and is fully cooperating,” said Travis Considine, spokesman for the Mandel campaign. “Neither the campaign nor anyone associated with it is a target of the investigation.”

He said the campaign is setting aside the roughly $100,000 it received from Suarez Corporation employees in a separate account pending the outcome of the probe. The campaign could return the money or donate it to charity, he said.

The investigation could present problems for the two campaigns in battleground Ohio, a state expected to play a key role in deciding not only who occupies the White House, but also who wins a majority in Congress this November. Just two years into his first term as Ohio’s state treasurer, Mr. Mandel, 34, has earned a reputation as a tenacious fund-raiser, and recent polls show him closing the gap in his U.S. Senate race with Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. And thanks to congressional redistricting, Mr. Renacci (R., Wadsworth) is fending off a challenge from another incumbent, U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton (D., Copley Township), to represent Ohio’s 16th Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci (R., Wadsworth) U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci (R., Wadsworth)
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Mr. Suarez, whose direct marketing firm sells items ranging from space heaters to collectible coins, is a big supporter of Republican candidates. He and his wife have contributed $40,000 to political action committees that support Mr. Renacci and Mr. Mandel. But in the current election cycle, many of his employees, including non-executive staffers, joined him in making contributions, suddenly turning Suarez Corporation into a fund-raising powerhouse. Overall, Mr. Suarez, his employees, and their spouses gave $100,000 to Mr. Mandel’s campaign and $100,250 to Mr. Renacci’s campaign.

Campaign finance experts told The Blade in August that the contributions raise questions, especially because some of the employees own modest homes and listed their occupations as “writer,” “copywriter,” or merely “marketing.”

Federal campaign finance law prohibits a donor from contributing in someone else’s name, especially if it’s an attempt to get around the $5,000 giving limit. Similarly, election law prohibits a corporation from using bonuses or other methods of reimbursing employees for their contributions.

Mr. Suarez has said his employees are well paid, in part because of the company’s profit sharing policy, and chose to contribute on their own. They were not reimbursed by him or his company, he said.

He did not return calls Monday about the investigation. Company lawyer Michael Puterbaugh said the firm “does not respond to gossip, rumors, or innuendo concerning its operations.”

“As for matters having legal implications, [Suarez Corporation Industries] does not respond to claims or allegations that have not been publicly filed,” he said in an e-mail statement.

Most of the company’s employees have also refused to comment on the matter. Of the 11 employees The Blade called Monday two declined to comment and the rest did not respond to messages.

The federal investigation first came to light Friday, when The New Republic magazine published an article in which employees said the FBI was investigating the contributions. One employee said they had been questioned.

Mr. Slepian said Mr. Renacci’s office hasn’t heard anything about the investigation since the initial inquiry.

“At this point, we have no idea if the investigation is continuing or not,” he said. “We’d like to know one way or another.”

He said the campaign has no reason to think the contributions were unusual.

“Having several people from within the same company make contributions is anything but rare in politics,” he said.

It is unusual, however, for those who have never contributed to a federal campaign to give the maximum allowable amount. Moreover, 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.

Spokesmen for the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland declined to comment.

Democrats wasted no time in pouncing on news of the investigation.

“Josh Mandel has repeatedly demonstrated he’s nothing more than a politician who can’t be trusted, and it comes as no surprise that his campaign is now part of an investigation over what is charitably called one hundred thousand dollars in questionable contributions from individuals who do not appear to have the means to make contributions of this size,” said Sadie Weiner, spokesman for Mr. Brown’s campaign.

Haley Morris, Midwest spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, “Congressman Renacci’s fund-raising from his largest donor is now at the center of an FBI investigation, and he owes it to Ohioans to come clean and explain how he scored more than $100,000 in suspect donations.”

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



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