Suarez Corp. leader vows to remain fighter against all legal challenges [The Akron Beacon Journal :: ]
(Akron Beacon Journal (OH) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 03--Benjamin Suarez says he feels no pressure despite working to resolve a California lawsuit demanding millions in civil penalties and restitution and, just this past September, a criminal indictment by the federal government that alleges illegal campaign contributions.
Suarez, who launched a worldwide product marketing firm out of his home in Canton in 1970, has such a long history of confronting lawsuits head-on, the judge handling his federal case gave him permission to leave Ohio for a holiday on Captiva Island from Dec. 26 through Jan. 4.
His trial is scheduled to begin in June in U.S. District Court in Cleveland before Judge Patricia A. Gaughan.
Facing such threats to his professional and personal reputation, at age 72, how could Suarez possibly kick back and enjoy his Christmas vacation?
"It was very good," he insisted in an exclusive Beacon Journal interview in January. "When you're innocent, there's really no pressure."
Staying put and fighting back, Suarez said, was his legal strategy in both lawsuits.
"The biggest thing is, I guess, I'm a hard-head. I cannot tolerate corruption. Most companies just roll over and settle. I don't," Suarez said, not stopping there.
"I guess that is the source of all these news stories. When there's a corrupt government official falsely accusing my company and my employees of something I fight back," Suarez said. "They don't like it when innocent people fight back."
He points to the $1.8 million settlement that an Alameda County judge approved Thursday that ended the case in California. District attorneys there sought $4 million in civil penalties plus $2 million more in restitution, alleging false and misleading advertisements on the labeling of 17 Suarez Corp. Industries (SCI) products and the distribution of misbranded foods, drugs and medical devices in the state.
Suarez said he fended off the state of California and agreed to settle for "only a fraction" of the state's $6 million demand and insisted there will be no admission of wrongdoing on his part.
Still on his plate is the most recent legal battle that began Sept. 24 with the announcement of an indictment by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Suarez, along with his firm, and his chief financial officer, Michael R. Giorgio, are accused of conspiring to funnel more than $200,000 in illegal "conduit contributions" -- through SCI and a host of its employees -- to the 2012 Republican election campaigns of U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and defeated U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel.
The trial is set to begin June 2.
Suarez declined to comment on any aspect of the case or the FBI investigation. But he did defend Giorgio, who also serves as SCI's general manager.
"He's been our chief financial officer since the 1980s. He's an ex-Marine," Suarez said. "You can interview anybody in our company. This guy would not do anything illegal if you held a gun to his head."
Ohio State University law professor and Senior Fellow Daniel P. Tokaji, a national authority on election law, reviewed the 35-page federal indictment against Suarez at the Beacon Journal's request.
He prefaced his analysis by saying he has no way of knowing the strength of the government's evidence in the case. Five months before trial, however, Tokaji was cautious in predicting how it might turn out with prosecutors needing to prove that an intricate conspiracy was at work inside the firm.
"It's hard to say. If they've got witnesses, especially those in the company who will testify to what the government claims was going on, and there isn't any evidence to contradict that testimony, then the government would seem to have a strong case," Tokaji said.
Prosecuting cases based on "conduit contributions" -- any person making a political donation by using another person's name -- are not frequent, Tokaji said, but they do happen.
Although Suarez did not comment on any allegations in his federal case, he took the opposite approach in the recently settled civil case filed against him in June 2011 by a consortium of county district attorneys in California -- 10 DAs in all.
Suarez said this lawsuit was like countless others in California, filed to squeeze money out of companies.
"First of all, the California district attorneys' scam they're running is a criminal enterprise," he said. "We're not the only ones they've sued," he said. "If you look in the records, they're suing hundreds of companies across the country, including the largest companies. They've sued Walmart, Kmart, a lot of the big companies who already have paid upwards of $20 million in settlements."
Response in two weeks
Suarez acted quickly in fighting the case by commissioning a study from Emord & Associates in Washington, D.C. The law firm, with branches in Virginia, Arizona and California, represents clients on matters of constitutional law and its focused specialty: food, drug and cosmetic laws under the auspices of the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Emord's study was dated June 28, 2011, just two weeks after the case was filed against Suarez in Alameda County. Documented settlements in suits similar to the one against SCI, in fact, show the state collected $24.7 million from Walmart, $22.5 million from Target, almost $16.6 million from Walgreens and $8.65 million from Kmart.
Suarez terms these settlements "a money-generating operation" for a state plagued by serious budget issues.
The Emord report found that the damage claims against SCI amounted to "unsupported allegations," because the district attorneys had supplied "no evidence of a single California consumer experiencing dissatisfaction with the purchase of an SCI product."
Emord's legal experts concluded by saying that, "in the hostile business environment created by overzealous district attorneys," SCI should "vigorously defend the false and baseless allegations against its products."
One of the SCI products California targeted as "an enormous source of profit" was the firm's Foot Choice Infrared Heat Massager.
The suit charged that Suarez' ads claimed the device "prevents pain throughout the body and cures breathing disorders and digestive problems."
Federal Trade Commission investigators found during a 2008 inspection of SCI headquarters customer letters and insurance claim forms that the company had received -- "at least 35 complaints where customers stated they burned their feet as a result of using The Foot Choice Infrared Massager."
Suarez said his company not only stopped distributing the massager two years before the FTC inspection, but also sent the remaining stock of product -- 19,908 units -- back to the manufacturer in Taiwan for rework.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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