Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel is facing a tough re-election campaign this year — maybe the toughest of the five Republicans running statewide for re-election.
And the testimony that came out of a public corruption case that just wrapped up in Cleveland is likely to supply Democrats with some damaging ammunition for negative TV ads.
Trial testimony in the case of North Canton, Ohio, businessman Benjamin Suarez revealed that Mr. Mandel had solicited $100,000 in campaign contributions, wrote a letter requested by Suarez to the state treasurer of California, and then got $100,000 in contributions for his budding U.S. Senate campaign.
The juicy testimony, however, ended with a comparative dud from the prosecutors’ and Democrats’ point of view — the jury came back on June 30 with a not-guilty verdict on the six campaign-finance counts.
Suarez was found guilty of one count of obstructing justice for witness tampering.
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The 72-year-old businessman was accused of scheming to funnel $100,000 each to Mr. Mandel and to U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci (R., Wadsworth) in 2011 and 2012. Suarez’s chief financial officer at Suarez Corporation Industries, Michael Giorgio, pleaded guilty in May to seven counts, testifying in a plea bargain that the plan was to reimburse employees who made the contributions. Neither Mr. Mandel nor Mr. Renacci was accused of wrongdoing, and both returned the contributions.
Speaking after the case wrapped up, state Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said the not-guilty verdict didn’t diminish the significance of evidence that appeared to show a linkage between Mr. Mandel’s willingness to perform a service for Suarez and Suarez’s success in raising $100,000 for Mr. Mandel’s then-Senate campaign against U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio).
“It’s clear what occurred here, a quid pro quo,” Mr. Redfern said. “Josh Mandel used his official office to benefit a donor to his failed  Senate campaign.”
Mr. Mandel’s Democratic challenger for state treasurer, state Rep. Connie Pillich (D., Cincinnati), declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement through her spokesman Jake Strassberger.
“Like Ohioans across the state, I was troubled to read about the facts that emerged throughout Benjamin Suarez’s trial and Josh Mandel’s involvement. What’s more troubling is this is one part of a pattern with Mr. Mandel of using his public office for his own political gain. This November, voters will get the chance to decide if they want four more years of Mr. Mandel’s behavior from their treasurer, or someone who’s focused on safeguarding our tax dollars, protecting our pensions, and doing everything she can to help grow our economy,” Ms. Pillich said.
Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf said the take-away from the Suarez trial is too muddled to hurt the treasurer, and it doesn’t tell voters anything about Mr. Mandel’s stewardship of his office.
“I don’t think there will be long-term harm from this. It’s difficult for a Democrat to explain why a case in which a donor who was acquitted of charges and no charges were brought against an officeholder impacts the job [the officeholder] was doing,” Mr. Schrimpf said.
Mandel’s political rise
Mr. Mandel, 36, of Beachwood, near Cleveland, was elected in 2006 and 2008 to the state House of Representatives from a typically Democratic district. While in the House, he served the second of two tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist. In 2010, he was elected treasurer, defeating incumbent Democrat Kevin Boyce.
Ms. Pillich, 53, a lawyer, was a captain in the Air Force and served eight years of active duty in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. She is in her third term in a House district that typically votes Republican.
Heading into the fall elections, Mr. Mandel had $2,995,564 in cash on hand as of June 13 while Ms. Pillich had $1,532,941.
The Democratic-commissioned firm Public Policy Polling in November showed the treasurer’s race as the most promising for Democrats, compared with races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor — all of which are held by Republicans. The poll found Ms. Pillich ahead 47 percent to 43 percent.
‘A good chance’
“Based on the last tracking poll, Pillich is ahead. Connie has a good chance of winning, especially now that all of the scandal surrounding Josh Mandel is becoming more obvious,” Mr. Redfern said.
Ms. Pillich may not be able to exploit the Suarez case to make a difference in the campaign, said Terry Casey, a longtime Franklin County Republican operative.
“It would take a lot of money to explain the whole thing,” Mr. Casey said, suggesting the cost of $2.5 million for two 30-second commercials. And if she runs an ad saying something like, “Josh Mandel took money from convicted felon Ben Suarez,” she might be forced to make an embarrassing clarification, since Suarez’s conviction was not directly related to campaign contributions to Mr. Mandel, he said.
Mr. Mandel’s campaign spokesman Rebecca Wasserstein refused to comment, and Mr. Mandel’s communications director, Seth Unger, and press secretary, Chris Berry, did not respond to phone calls or emails from The Blade.
The Suarez prosecution by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office began after The Blade reported in 2011 that $200,000 in campaign contributions to Mr. Mandel and Mr. Renacci came from employees of one business, most in the maximum amounts of $5,000 and some from employees on six-digit incomes who had never contributed to candidates before.
Letter to California
During the trial, it was learned that Mr. Mandel met two times with Suarez and wrote a letter, on official state treasurer letterhead, and in almost the same language provided to him by Suarez’s company, to the California treasurer urging him to drop litigation against Suarez’s mail-order company for deceptive advertising, unfair competition, and other charges. The letter threatened to sue the state if the district attorneys carried through with the lawsuit. The $100,000 started to flow within days. In his letter, Mr. Mandel said he was concerned for an Ohio employer.
Mr. Schrimpf said Mr. Mandel cleaned up an office that was tinged with corruption under his Democratic predecessor, though the corruption was not tied to the treasurer, Mr. Boyce.
“Through all of this, I have not heard any criticism of any actions Josh Mandel has done on behalf of taxpayers. He took over an office that was a disaster, a criminal enterprise under his predecessor, cleaned it up. To me that looks like an elected official that was doing the job he was elected to do,” Mr. Schrimpf said.
Mr. Redfern said authorities agreed that Mr. Boyce knew nothing about the alleged bribery and money-laundering scheme run by his deputy Amer Ahmad, 38. And he said Democrats have plenty of criticism of Mr. Mandel’s performance in office.