Updated at 6:38 pm
Some things you learn the hard way. Ask infomercial star Kevin Trudeau, who tried to get off the hook in a civil contempt proceeding by exhorting supporters to e-mail the court and explain "how I have changed your life for the better."
His backers complied by sending more than 300 messages, clogging the in-box and crashing the computer of Chicago federal judge Robert Gettleman. Yesterday, Gettleman held Trudeau in criminal contempt and sentenced him to 30 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit issued a last-minute stay this afternoon on the sentence, according to the Associated Press. The court gave no reason for the stay.
"Mr. Trudeau has committed no crime; he has violated no statute; and he has violated no court order. Mr. Trudeau believes that he was simply exercising his First Amendment Rights and was permissibly encouraging others to do the same," his lawyer Kimball Anderson, a partner at Winston & Strawn in Chicago, said in a statement.
Trudeau, the author of New York Times best sellers including “The Weight Loss Cure ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About,” has a long history before the judge, who has presided over a series of proceedings against Trudeau brought by the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC filed its first suit against Trudeau in 1998, charging him with making false and misleading claims in infomercials for products he said could cause significant weight loss and cure addictions to heroin, alcohol, and cigarettes, as well as enable users to achieve a photographic memory. He was fined $500,000 and barred from making false claims in the future.
In 2003, the FTC charged him with violating the 1998 order by claiming in an infomercial that the supplement Coral Calcium Supreme could cure cancer. He was ordered by the court to stop making the claim. He didn’t, and was found in contempt in 2004 and ordered to pay $2 million in consumer redress.
He was also banned from appearing in infomercials, except for those involving books - and only then provided he did not “misrepresent the content.”
Trudeau went on to write his weight loss book and returned to the airwaves.
In his infomercials, according to a Nov. 16, 2007, order by Gettleman, Trudeau boasted that his diet plan was “the easiest method known on planet Earth.” He reported eating “mashed potatoes loaded with cream and butter, gravy loaded with fat. I had a big prime rib marbled with fat. For dessert I had a big hot fudge sundae.” And he repeatedly stated that the diet was “the easiest, simplest, most effective thing I’ve ever done.”
But the diet as described in the book requires in its various stages 15 colonics in 30 days, “organ cleanses,” daily one-mile walks outside, 100% organic food, no use of a microwave, complete avoidance of all chain restaurants, no sugars, no “brand name food,” and no over-the-counter or prescription medicine. For at least three weeks, dieters can consume only 500 calories a day and must receive a daily injection of a hormonal pharmaceutical product that is not available without a prescription and is not authorized for treatment of obesity by the Food and Drug Administration.
“In this court’s opinion, the protocol described in the Weight Loss Book as a whole is anything but ‘easy’ under any definition,” Gettleman wrote in the November 2007 order holding Trudeau in contempt once again.
Gettleman went on to fine Trudeau $5 million and banned him from infomercials for three years. Asked by both Trudeau and the FTC to reconsider the decision, Gettleman upped the fine to $37 million in November 2008 – about the amount he figured consumers shelled out in response to the deceptive infomercial.
The 7th Circuit in August 2009 vacated the sanction, directing the court to better explain its calculations, and reversed the infomercial ban, writing “there is no indication in the record that defendant had any notice that the court was considering such a broad sanction as an outright ban.”
With another contempt hearing scheduled for March 9, Trudeau last week began soliciting e-mails from supporters. According to the judge, he admitted posting the court’s e-mail address on his Web site and in a blast e-mail to a large list of recipients. He asked supporters to e-mail the court and say that “the government is out of control for trying to silence the truth.”
In his order holding Trudeau in criminal contempt, Gettleman wrote, “As a direct result of this conduct, the court’s judicial email inbox was flooded with more than 300 messages, thus effectively shutting down this court’s email communication system, interfering with the processes of the court, and causing the United States Marshal to initiate a threat assessment.”