The classic pitchman conjures images of such iconic figures as Billy Mays or Ron Popeil touting unusual products on late night infomercials. Today we look at 10 pitchmen who had brushes with the law after rising to fame.
Pitchmen in Trouble
The list below presents 10 pitchmen who found themselves in legal trouble after rising to fame, sometimes related to their careers, and sometimes due to other incidents. Obviously what constitutes a pitchman isn’t always cut and dry.
Criteria: Pitchmen who found themselves in trouble with the law after rising to fame. It can include arrests, fines, or convictions. It doesn’t include televangelists (that will be another list entirely), or celebrities and businessmen who are not primarily known as pitchmen.
We have also included a couple of notable honorable mentions at the end of this list.
#10. John Polk: Fraud
In the late 1990s, TV pitchman John Polk could be seen in infomercials offering programs such as “Inside Secrets” or “Real Estate Money Machine.” His company, 2XtremePerformance International, held seminars which had hard upsells for training materials, software, and other products which allegedly taught customers various money-making techniques. Customers were encouraged to recruit others into the company, who would then be pitched the same materials.
Polk appeared in infomercials featuring “his” jet – which he actually only rented for one hour – and “his” office, which was actually just a furniture store office display. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and received a sentence of 51 months in prison, and was ordered to pay over $10 million in restitution.
#9. Glenn W. Turner: Conspiracy, Fraud, Pyramid Scheme
Motivational speaker Glenn W. Turner drew crowds of thousands for his “Dare to be Great” seminars in the 1970s. At these seminars, he enlisted others to sell his courses in what was described by authorities as a pyramid scheme.
He first found himself with legal challenges as early as 1973, including a brief stint of about 6 months in jail for running a pyramid scheme. He continued to promote MLM and pyramid-type programs, and in 1987 Turner was sentenced to 7 years in state prison on felony charges of conspiracy, fraud, and illegal pyramid sales. He ended up serving a total of 4.5 years.
Now in his 80s, Mr. Turner has written a book about his experiences and has maintained a website in recent years.
#8. George L. Capell: Fraud & Laundering
In the 1990s, George Capell could be seen in cable television infomercials around the country pitching computers and accessories, costing as much as $2000 for a complete system. His companies, Video Computer Store and Direct 2 U Network, collected money for these computers which in many cases arrived broken or missing parts – and sometimes didn’t arrive at all. By the late 1990s, Capell’s company continued to take orders, even though it was unable to fill them.
The company stopped issuing refunds or rebates, and no longer honored its 30-day money back guarantee. Consumers who called to complain would be put on hold for hours. U.S. Attorney Peter Hardy described it as “a nightmare for” the customers.
In 2006, Capell pleaded guilty to 41 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison and ordered to pay $32 million in restitution.
#7. Dell “Super Dell” Schanze: Harassing an Owl
Super Dell was a TV pitchman for a local Utah business called Totally Awesome Computers. When a viral YouTube video surfaced that allegedly showed him harrassing a protected bird while piloting a motorized paraglider, he suddenly found himself facing misdemeanor charges which could have sent him to prison for a year along with a $100,000 fine.
Below is the purported video.
Despite initially denying it was him in the video, Schanze eventually pleaded guilty in April 2015 to harassing an owl. U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen released a statement which read, “The protection of Utah’s wildlife should be important to all of us. Mr. Schanze used his motorized paraglider to harass an owl to the point of exhaustion and then kicked it. His actions showed utter disregard for this protected bird.”
He received a year probation.
#6. William J. McCorkle: Multiple Charges
Featured in infomercials pitching wealth via real estate and U.S. Government auctions, William McCorkle and his wife Chantal were charged with mail fraud, conspiracy, laundering, and obtaining a credit card and social security number under false pretenses.
After hearing the first 13 out of 69 guilty verdicts in late 1998, McCorkle collapsed in court and was taken to a local hospital for an anxiety attack.
The McCorkles were each sentenced to more than 24 years in federal prison, which was later reduced. Chantal was released in 2010 and divorced her husband. William was released on July 7, 2014.
#5. James Arthur Ray: Negligent Homicide
Self-help guru James Arthur Ray was a New York Times best-selling author and earned the adoration of A-list celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. In 2011, however, Ray was sentenced to two years in prison after three attendees at his Angel Valley Retreat Center died as part of a “cleansing ceremony” in 2009. The attendees, who paid up to $10,000, fasted for 36 hours and were left in the desert with a sleeping bag, then ate a breakfast buffet before entering a 20-foot-by-20-foot sweat lodge made of wood, tarps, and blankets. More than a dozen other participants were injured due to dehydration and sun exposure.
Ray discussed the incident with Piers Morgan.
#4. Vince “ShamWow” Shlomi: Punching a Prostitute
Vince Offer (aka Offer Shlomi, Vince Shlomi) who is better known as the ShamWow Guy has pitched a variety of As Seen on TV products over the past several years. He first appeared in 2007 with his campy ShamWow television spots.
In 2009, Offer was arrested on a felony battery charge after an altercation with a prostitute in a Miami hotel. According to the arrest affidavit, Offer punched the prostitute in the head several times after she bit his tongue and wouldn’t let go.
Prosecutors decided not to press charges against either party.
#3. Jordan Belfort: Fraud & Laundering
Rising to prominence while still in his 20s, Jordan Belfort made millions in the 1990s pitching “dicey stocks to gullible investors,” as Forbes described it at the time. His investment firm Stratton Oakmont engaged in a “pump and dump” scheme in which they touted stocks to investors, which would artificially – and temporarily – inflate the price. The company would then sell its own holdings at this inflated price for big profits. Belfort lived a lavish lifestyle with expensive cars, a mansion, and hosted legendary parties of debauchery.
It didn’t take long before the Securities Exchange Commission and FBI went after Stratton Oakmont and Belfort.
Although initially facing up to 30 years in prison, Belfort was sentenced to 4 years in prison and served 22 months after a plea deal with the FBI. He was also ordered to pay $110 million in restitution. Belfort, on the suggestion from his prison cellmate Tommy Chong, penned two memoirs about his experiences. The 2013 Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio was based on his writings.
#2. Don Lapre: Multiple Counts
Lapre is best known for his 1990s late-night infomercials in which he claims to have discovered a way to make money placing tiny classified ads. His infomercials were so ubiquitous that they were parodied by David Letterman and Saturday Night Live.
After ignoring several warnings from the FDA about vitamins he was selling, Lapre was charged in 2011 with 41 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. He was accused of scamming hundreds of thousand of people out of more than $50 million, and faced up to 25 years in prison.
While awaiting trial, he left what some believed to be a suicide note on his website. “I have been accused of something I did not do…I am left to fight a battle that will for sure destroy what energy I have left inside,” the message said.
Two days before his trial was to begin, Lapre committed suicide in his Arizona jail cell.
#1. Kevin Trudeau: Contempt
Kevin Trudeau first rose to prominence for his 1990s late night infomercials pitching cassette tape courses Mega Memory and Mega Math. In the early 1990s Trudeau served two years in prison for credit card fraud after charging over $120,000 on credit cards of 11 Mega Memory customers.
After his prison term, Trudeau immediately returned to television with a string of new infomercials. In the late 1990s he was cited by several states and the Securities Exchange Commission for operating a pyramid scheme, and fined $500,000 by the FTC for misleading claims in his infomercials.
Undeterred, Trudeau went on to publish a series of alternate medicine books such as Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About in 2004 and its follow-up More Natural Cures Revealed. He continued his “cures” series with books on weight loss and debt.
Over the next several years, fines, warnings, and lawsuits began to pile up. Trudeau, despite a 2004 settlement agreeing to a lifetime ban of infomercial promotion, continued to air late-night spots touting his popular books.
Below is a 20/20 expose by John Stossel which first aired in January 2006.
Trudeau was eventually fined over $37 million for violating his 2004 settlement. After failure to pay on that fine, Trudeau was charged with civil contempt, and later criminal contempt. His home and many of his assets were auctioned with the money applied toward his fine.
In 2014, Trudeau was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Infomercials for his books continue to air, even as he serves his prison sentence.
- Anthony Robbins: Lost a $655,000 copyright infringement case against Wade Cook in 1998, who said Robbins profited from proprietary terms found in one of Cook’s books. Robbins also entered into an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission in 1995, without admitting guilt, after charges of misrepresentation of earnings to investors.
- Martha Stewart: Although not a pitchwoman per se, Stewart has built an empire from merchandising and publishing. She spent 5 months in prison and another 5 months in home confinement after being convicted of insider trading after selling stock based on nonpublic information from her stock broker.
- Jared Fogle: Although not charged with any crime when this article was first published, Subway pitchman Jared Fogle’s home was raided by law enforcement officials in July 2015 after one of Fogle’s employees was busted for child pornography. Despite cooperating with authorities and a lack of charges, Subway cut ties with Fogle. Eventually Fogle plead guilty to one count of distribution and receipt of child pornography and one count of traveling to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in late 2015.