One of America’s most prolific and successful pitchmen went to jail this week, dressed down by a judge for contempt for claiming to be too broke to pay the $37 million he owes the Federal Trade Commission one day and spending $900 on cigars the next.
Kevin Trudeau, the “King of Informercials,” went to jail for a day. The government still doesn’t have its money and is apparently not close to getting it, thanks to deft legal maneuvering by the bestselling author of books that make ridiculous claims about “natural” remedies for common health ailments.
Despite the apparent absurdity of claims by this Chicago hawker that go back decades, despite just about every media outlet in America reporting on that absurdity in profile after profile and despite the $37 million fine from the FTC, Trudeau has somehow managed to cling to his freedom and hang on to what may be substantial stacks of cash.
How? By taking advantage of a broken system, says Stephen Barrett, founder of and a critic of Trudeau’s for more than a decade.
“People who have a lot of money can drag out legal proceedings for a very long time,” Barrett said. “That’s what he’s been doing, probably better than anybody in any health-related case I know of.” (Lawyers for Trudeau did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
Trudeau seemed to amass plenty to spend, throughout an impressive career touting his discoveries of an array of secrets “they” don’t want you to know. He grew up in Lynn, Mass., and graduated high school after being voted “most likely to succeed.” In a way, Trudeau lived up to that expectation, if that way includes being indicted on fraud charges and spending two years in prison.
Yet Trudeau joined a multilevel marketing firm called Nutrition for Life in the 1990s, which Illinois’ attorney general eventually declared a pyramid scheme. Trudeau and a co-defendant settled the case for $185,000 and Trudeau moved on to his next venture: infomercials, promoting all kinds of remedies for baldness, fatness, addiction, and memory loss. He had a good run, until the FTC filed a lawsuit accusing Trudeau of broadcasting with fraudulent and misrepresentative claims. It took six years before he actually paid the $2 million fine in a settlement that banned his participation in future infomercials.
Instead, Trudeau turned to publishing. He began with Natural Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About, which became a bestseller despite not actually containing any natural cures. (Trudeau claimed the FTC had intimidated him into leaving the cures out.) The book posited that it’s sunscreen that causes skin cancer, not the sun, and that there’s no such thing as AIDS. More books and infomercials followed, and Trudeau’s empire expanded.
How did Trudeau discover all of these secrets? With his backstage pass to “The Brotherhood,” a tightly woven group of “highly influential, affluent, and freedom-orientated people from various business, social, and economic sectors.” From the description of his book on Amazon:
“Kevin Trudeau is fast becoming the nation’s foremost consumer advocate and exposer of corporate and government corruption. Claiming to be a secret covert operative for almost 20 years, Kevin knows from personal experience how big business and government try to debunk individuals who promote products that could hurt the profits of giant multinational corporations.”
Why did anybody believe any of it? Because this is America, a country full of conspiracy theorists, Barrett told The Daily Beast. After emerging as a frequent critic, Barrett says he still gets easily a thousand pieces of hate mail each year from Trudeau’s still-loyal followers.
That may be due in part to Trudeau’s unrelenting willingness to defend his honor. In 2005, he fought the FTC in a complaint charging the feds were retaliating against him because he’d criticized the agency in a press release. He lost that case, but not his determination. Trudeau later sued the New York State Consumer Protection Board, accusing the panel of violating his First Amendment rights after the authority contacted several television stations to urge them to pull his informercials. Trudeau won; a judge ordered the board to knock it off.
In the end, though, Trudeau fought the law and the law won. In November 2011, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the $37.6 million fine levied against him for violating the 2004 settlement with the FTC.
But he still hasn’t paid that balance, instead going to great lengths to persuade the courts that he’s “homeless” and “penniless.” Authorities admit they have a hard time proving otherwise.
“Trudeau has little credibility with this court. Based on his demeanor and conduct, the court has found, and continues to find, that Trudeau cannot be trusted,” wrote the U.S. District Court in Illinois in a 2010 ruling. “Any attempt to fashion a monetary sanction against him based on what he says he earned from the infomercials would be sheer folly.”
Somehow, though, Trudeau managed to go on a spending spree last month that included two $180 haircuts from Vidal Sassoon and $1,000 in meat he bought from a website. Which is why a judge found him in contempt on Wednesday and threw him in jail (for a day).
Now Kevin Trudeau is free again, to spend the money he insists he doesn’t have.
“Why the judge doesn’t put him in jail until the money is paid, or at least a substantial part of it is paid, I don’t know,” Barrett said. “The whole court system is a total mess.”