The FTC Never Forgets: Just Look at the Federal Pursuit of Infomercial King Kevin Trudeau

Last Updated May 21, 2010 5:57 PM EDT

Infomercial king Kevin Trudeau has made another Houdini-esque escape from the clutches of the FTC, this time narrowly avoiding a 30-day jail sentence for contempt of court after he urged his supporters to flood a federal judge's email address with protest letters.

The Trudeau case demonstrates an interesting aspect of the FTC: The agency, which polices false advertising, is often slow to act. But when it does, it's like a vengeful elephant: It never forgets and you have made an enemy for life. Just ask baseball player Steve Garvey. The FTC introduced that new blogger/celebrity endorsement law mostly because it lost a case against him.

The FTC is trying to enforce a $37 million fine for deceptive advertising against Trudeau, who is best-known for his his entirely bogus best-selling book, Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About.

But Trudeau has a long history of false advertising and ripping people off. In the early 1990s he was convicted of passing bad checks. He graduated to infomercials by the late 1990s, and by 1998 the FTC had accused him for the first time of deceptive advertising. He was eventually fined $500,000.

He was fined another $2 million in 2003, again by the FTC, for advertising Coral Calcium as a cure for cancer, and was banned from making infomercials.

To give you an idea of how personally the FTC can take things, consider what staff attorney Leslie Fair said about Trudeau after the infomercial ban was obtained. Upon arriving at a New York hotel in New York for a conference:

What was the first thing I saw when I turned on the TV? A Kevin Trudeau infomercial.
He is the only man to receive such a ban. Ultimately, the ban was overturned on appeal -- which appears to have given Trudeau the impression that laws just don't apply to him.

I first encountered Trudeau in 2007 when he was attempting to get around the infomercial ban by staging a lavish professional pool tournament with a $15 million prize. He intended to pay to broadcast the contest, and sell pool paraphernalia, just like an infomercial. When I asked him how he could possibly make back in revenue what he was laying out for revenues and TV expenses, he replied:

That's why I'm a billionaire and you're not.
Trudeau failed to pay players their prize money and by the end of the year the New York Times had blamed him for single-handedly destroying the professional sport.

Trudeau isn't yet off the hook in Illinois federal court. As the Citizen Media Law Project notes:

Trudeau's underlying conviction for criminal contempt, involving advertising for his book, remains. So the hearing on what punishment to impose for that contempt will contine.
The elephant may yet get its revenge.

Image of vengeful elephant by Flickr user treehouse1977, CC.