Ex-official testifies at Ohio businessman's trial

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The former top official for a northeast Ohio telemarketing millionaire charged with violating federal campaign finance laws testified Wednesday that he knew it was illegal to have the company reimburse people who had been asked to donate to two prominent Republican politicians.

Michael Giorgio, 62, testified in U.S. District Court in Cleveland in the trial of Ben Suarez, the founder of North Canton's Suarez Corporation Industries and a longtime donor to Republican politicians and conservative causes.

"I knew right off the bat what we're doing wasn't right," Giorgio said.

Giorgio, the company's chief financial officer at the time, said 72-year-old Suarez asked him in 2011 to collect $100,000 each for the 2012 re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and the failed U.S. Senate bid of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. The company then issued reimbursement checks to the contributors that appeared to be normal compensation for work.

Suarez's attorneys said during opening statements last week that their client reimbursed the contributors but didn't know it was illegal and shouldn't be found guilty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca Lutzko questioned Giorgio about the reimbursement made to him and his wife for the $10,000 they'd contributed to Mandel and Renacci. The gross amount in check stubs totaled more than $18,000 and included deductions for state and federal taxes. The reimbursements were paid from an account used for sales commissions, Giorgio said.

"We expensed it out," he testified.

Giorgio testified that after learning about the FBI's interest in the contributions and payments that he and Suarez devised a scheme to collect the money back from employees. Asked why he got involved in the scheme, Giorgio said he was trying to cover up his earlier crime.

Giorgio and Suarez were indicted last year on charges that included conspiracy to commit federal campaign violations, making corporate contributions, making contributions in others' name and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Prosecutors have alleged that Suarez made the donations in the hope that Renacci and Mandel would help Suarez's company in an expensive consumer protection complaint it had been fighting in California.

Originally indicted along with Suarez, Giorgio pleaded guilty May 19 in a deal that calls for him to testify against his former boss in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.

The two politicians wrote letters on behalf of Suarez Corporation Industries that spokeswomen for the politicians said is a common constituent service. Mandel and Renacci have not been accused of wrongdoing and returned the Suarez donations after learning of an FBI investigation.

Giorgio testified that Suarez had told him it would be important to get Renacci re-elected so he could help them with the California litigation, which had cut into the company's profits. He also testified that Suarez said the employees' reimbursement would be "early profit sharing." Giorgio said that in the 27 years he'd worked for the company, no one had ever been paid profit sharing in advance.

Giorgio is expected to continue his testimony Thursday morning.

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