For Senate hopeful Jim Renacci, Ben Suarez is baggage that will not go away, nor should it: Brent Larkin

Disgraced North Canton businessman Ben Suarez's sick brand of vigilante justice includes offering rewards for dirt on Jim Renacci's Senate opponent, incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown, and on former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach, writes Brent Larkin.

CLEVELAND — Some skeletons just won’t leave a politician’s closet. At the worst possible time, they rattle around and remind voters of unflattering episodes from an officeholder’s past. 

That’s what’s happening now with Rep. Jim Renacci, the Northeast Ohio congressman and Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.

Renacci wants voters to forget he was once a marionette for disgraced North Canton businessman and convicted felon Ben Suarez.

But it now seems the Suarez skeleton will be dangling in plain view for the duration of the campaign, a reminder of Renacci’s role in the courtroom drama that earned Suarez a 15-month prison sentence, later reduced to about 13 months for good behavior.

Suarez is Renacci’s worst nightmare. For Brown, he’s the gift that keeps on giving.

A July 6 story by Dayton Daily News reporter Laura Bischoff revealed telephone logs obtained by federal investigators found Renacci and Suarez exchanged more than 40 calls between late 2010 and May 2012. 

Evidence in Suarez’s 2014 criminal trial showed that in 2011 Renacci wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich complaining about an investigation into the business practices of Suarez’s company being conducted by the state of California.

Renacci’s letter proved profitable.  Days later, checks from Suarez employees were headed to the congressman’s campaign treasury, eventually totaling a reported $100,000.

State Treasurer Josh Mandel experienced the same windfall when he wrote an angry letter on Suarez’s behalf to the California state treasurer conducting the investigation.

Early this year, Mandel withdrew from this year’s U.S. Senate race, clearing the way for Renacci to abandon what would have been a losing campaign for governor and instead run for the Senate.

Renacci wants Ohioans to believe his hands are clean in this sordid mess. A spokeswoman for the Renacci campaign insists he hasn’t spoken with Suarez since 2012.

But the damage is done. Of the 40 or more telephone calls, government exhibit 802 in the Suarez trial shows:

*Eight telephone calls between Renacci and Suarez in the week before the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions began to arrive. 
*A call on the day before Renacci wrote the letter to Kasich.
*Another call within hours after the Associated Press reported on May 21, 2012 that the donations were the subject of a federal investigation.

Most of the calls were short, but they intensified in length and frequency at key times leading up to Suarez’s indictment.

I was in the courtroom for the opening of Suarez’s trial, when First Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Rendon told the jury, “This case is about the power of money.” And, she added seconds later, “the influence it can buy with politicians.” 

The government’s case left little doubt Renacci and Mandel were Suarez’s flunkies, errand boys always willing to please a deep-pocketed master.

Suarez was convicted of witness tampering, a felony. He and his company were acquitted on federal campaign finance charges related to arranging employee donations.

The company’s former chief financial officer, Michael Giorgio, pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.

Another top Suarez employee took his own life on the night before he was to testify before a federal grand jury.

Despite the horrible human cost already paid in lives ruined or ended, Suarez emerged from prison an angry man bent on revenge.

His targets: Rendon, who later became U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio; U.S. District Judge Patricia Gaughan, who presided over Suarez’s trial; Steve Dettelbach, Rendon’s predecessor as U.S. Attorney, who is now the Democratic nominee for Ohio attorney general; and Brown, the incumbent U.S. senator.

Suarez’s sick brand of vigilante justice includes raising money to defeat Dettelbach and Brown. And he’s offering rewards to anyone providing dirt on any of these four targets.

Republican David Yost, Dettelbach’s opponent in the contest for attorney general, has already denounced Suarez’s effort, tweeting, “Mr. Suarez was convicted – by a jury of his peers. Politics and retribution have no place in the criminal justice system. This nonsense needs to stop.”


Contrast that exercise in honesty with this from Renacci campaign spokeswoman Leslie Shedd:

“Both the Obama Justice Department and the FBI conducted a thorough investigation and repeatedly made clear neither Jim Renacci nor his campaign engaged in any improper conduct. This is just another embarrassingly desperate attempt by Sherrod Brown to deceive voters and deflect from his liberal record in Washington.” 

That’s the new Republican way. When cornered, always obfuscate, mislead, change the subject. And make sure you include at least one mention of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.

Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

To reach Brent Larkin: blarkin@cleveland.com

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