Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel wrote two letters advocating for Suarez Corporation Industries’ business interests in California at the same time that company founder Ben Suarez was raising $100,000 for Mandel’s campaign for U.S. Senate, according to records released by Mandel’s office to the Dayton Daily News.
Suarez and Michael Giorgio, Suarez Corp. chief financial officer, were indicted last month on federal felony charges of violating campaign finance laws and obstruction of justice. The charges stemmed from an alleged scheme in early 2011 to use conduits — employees of his company and in some cases their spouses — to funnel $100,000 into Mandel’s Senate campaign and another $100,000 into the campaign of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth.
It is illegal to give campaign money in the name of another individual and federal campaign law currently limits individual candidate contributions to $2,600.
Mandel, who lost the Senate race, has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
The letters document Mandel’s attempts to convince officials in California to back away from mounting a separate legal case against Suarez Corp., a global direct marketing company based in Canton.
In 2011, Suarez Corp. was facing litigation filed by district attorneys in several California counties over allegations of deceptive advertising practices. Mandel wrote a letter to Renacci on March 21, 2011, urging him to support a bill in Congress to head off such lawsuits. Mandel sent another strongly-worded letter to California Treasurer Bill Lockyer on May 23, 2011, that said lawsuits filed by California district attorneys threaten jobs in Stark County, which includes Canton.
Referring to Suarez Corp. employees in Ohio, Mandel wrote on state treasurer letterhead: “I cannot sit back idly while 681 Ohioans potentially lose their jobs due to the prosecutorial excesses of California DA’s. I cannot let my state lose $5 million in tax revenues due to these abuses. I cannot allow this practice to continue against additional Ohio companies without speaking up and taking action.”
He added that if the situation wasn’t resolved, he would urge Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to file a federal lawsuit against California. Mandel copied California Attorney General Kamala Harris on the correspondence.
Three days after Mandel sent the Lockyer letter, donations began pouring into Mandel’s U.S. Senate campaign from Suarez Corp. employees and their spouses. Federal authorities allege that the donations came from Suarez Corp., not the employees, and were thus illegal.
Mandel spokesman Chris Berry issued a written statement regarding the letters: “Even though Treasurer Mandel does not recall being personally involved with these constituent letters, it would be completely within the bounds of the law and his duties if he were. It is routine for the treasurer’s office to work to protect Ohio’s jobs and tax base, and we do so without regard to campaign contributions. As President Obama’s office said regarding his presidential appointees, and as our office feels as well, being a supporter does not qualify you for anything or guarantee you anything, but it does not disqualify you either.”
Robert Stern, former director of the Center for Governmental Studies and author of some of California’s campaign finance laws, said Mandel writing letters and Suarez raising campaign money is not illegal unless there is an explicit agreement. Nonetheless, he said, it looks bad.
“The problem is the system,” Stern said. ‘That’s how the system works. If you call it campaign contributions and we don’t do it in exchange for a decision, it’s OK.”
He added: “The courts said unless there is an explicit quid pro quo, go ahead and do it and make the decisions, even if it looks bad, which it does.”
Mandel is running for re-election next year for state treasurer and will likely face Democratic state representative Connie Pillich of Cincinnati. She declined comment on the letters.
Mandel isn’t the only statewide Ohio officeholder who interceded on behalf of Suarez Corp.
Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican and former senator and House Speaker from Kettering, reached out to California Attorney General Kamala Harris in the spring of 2011. In an eight-page letter to Husted, Suarez said that 800 jobs and the company livelihood were “being threatened by an extortion racket conducted by a group of corrupt California government officials.”
Husted called Harris to see if he could get a contact in the state attorney general’s office to assist Suarez, according to Husted spokeswoman Maggie Ostrowski. His phone call was returned by an assistant attorney general who told him that the litigation was a local matter, not a state one, Ostrowski said. Husted relayed that back to Suarez and that was the end of it, she said.
“I wouldn’t even characterize it as advocacy,” Ostrowski said.
In Suarez’ letter to Husted, he suggests action steps for Ohio government officials — including Gov. John Kasich, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and Renacci — to intervene on his behalf.
Spokesmen for Kasich and Portman said they did nothing to help Suarez, and copies of letters received from and sent to Suarez give no indication of any effort to intervene.
James Slepian, Renacci’s chief of staff, said Renacci received a letter from Suarez and the one from Mandel but took no action on either.
In the indictment of Suarez and Giorgio, the government accuses them of withholding certain records from federal investigators, including March 21 and March 22, 2011, emails between Mandel’s Senate campaign fundraiser, Scott Guthrie, and a Suarez Corp. employee. According to the indictment, the March 22 email included an attached letter regarding Suarez Corp.’s business interests.
Mandel campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Wasserstein said the campaign committee has fully cooperated with the federal investigation.
“Neither Treasurer Mandel nor the campaign have done anything improper or been accused of any wrongdoing. Because of the campaign’s continuing cooperation with the authorities, we will not comment on the specific details of the investigation, but rather allow the Department of Justice to do its job,” she said in a written statement.
Suarez Corp. campaign contributions to Mandel, Renacci, Kasich and Husted have all been returned or donated to charity.
The Mandel campaign returned the Suarez contributions on May 22, 2012, after news broke that the FBI was investigating. The Renacci campaign returned the $100,000 in Suarez contributions in July 2012.
The Kasich campaign donated the $22,000 it had received from Suarez to NAMI of Ohio and Husted is sending the $5,000 his campaign from Suarez to Dan’s Fund, which pays for brain cancer research at Ohio State University. The Portman campaign did not receive any Suarez contributions, his spokesman said.