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Chalk One Up for Local Journalism

Last year, following up on an intriguing 2011 piece in the Toledo Blade, I stumbled upon an FBI investigation into more than $200,000 in questionable contributions made by employees of a North Canton, Ohio direct marketing firm called Suarez Corporation to the campaigns of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who was challenging Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Mandel’s fellow Republican, Rep. Jim Renacci. After breaking the story of the investigation, I lamented that it had not been uncovered earlier by Ohio newspapers and took that fact as yet another sign of the cost of the deep reductions in local news – the Akron Beacon-Journal, not far from Canton, has seen its state capital bureau go from four reporters to nil, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer just up the road has been truly decimated by wave after wave of cuts.

Well, I owe the Ohio press a bit of a give-back on this score. Because one of the state’s newspapers has now uncovered an eyebrow-raising new aspect to the Suarez story that would seem to heighten the odds that this could turn into a bona fide political scandal with broader implications for that battleground state. As I noted last month, the FBI investigation has now led to indictments against Benjamin Suarez and his firm’s chief financial officer, alleging that they engineered a scheme to funnel contributions from Suarez employees to Mandel and Renacci and reimburse the employees for the cost—a way around the $5,000 cap on personal contribution limits that is expressly forbidden by law.* Both candidates have denied knowledge of any such scheme—Mandel did so in an amusing videotaped interview -- but the indictment included mention of a handwritten note from Mandel to Suarez requesting that he raise $100,000 for Mandel’s campaign.

Well, now comes a new revelation that would seem to increase the pressure even more on Mandel, who remains the state’s treasurer and, despite the loss to Brown, a prospect for higher office. Laura Bischoff of the Dayton Daily News reports:

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…

The letters document Mandel’s attempts to convince officials in California to back away from mounting a separate legal case against Suarez Corp….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.

Mandel’s office responded to the Daily News with a statement asserting that he “does not recall being personally involved with these constituent letters” but that regardless, “it would be completely within the bounds of the law and his duties if he were.”

We’ll leave that for Ohioans to judge when Mandel stands for reelection next year. For now, it’s enough to say that it’s heartening to see that even the skeleton crew of reporters still on the ground in Ohio is managing to follow through on this story as much as it has. Washington, D.C. may be a boomtown for political reporters these days, but last I checked, neither Politico nor National Journal nor Buzzfeed was opening a bureau in Columbus. If the tree falls and the Dayton Daily News isn’t there to hear it…

*Addendum: It's worth noting that if the Supreme Court decides to entirely do away with limits on individual contributions to candidates, as many fear it will in the McCutcheon case up for oral arguments Tuesday, then Benjamin Suarez in the future could simply cut a $100,000 check to Josh Mandel. Hooray!