AUGUST 31, 01:44 EDT
Host of TV Infomercial Faces Trial
By MIKE SCHNEIDER
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — By the tens of thousands they called, all placing their faith and dollars with William J. McCorkle, an infomercial guru who promised relief from cash woes.
Associated Press Writer
From as far away as Provo, Utah, and Charleston, S.C., customers paid as much as $2,500 for packages that McCorkle hawked on late-night television, promising to make them filthy rich — like him.
``Money is not the root of all evil — not having money is!'' McCorkle declared in one of his pamphlets.
Federal prosecutors said money was definitely being made, but only by McCorkle, a former exotic dancer. His customers lost millions of dollars, authorities said.
McCorkle, 31, and his wife, Chantal, 29, are scheduled to go to trial in federal court Tuesday, charged with 90 counts of fraud, money laundering and obtaining a fake social security number.
If convicted, the McCorkles face up to 19 1/2 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Three colleagues also will be tried.
Prosecutors have accused the McCorkles of defrauding their customers of at least $28 million — more than $7 million of which was wired to bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.
Many of McCorkle's chagrined former customers would like to get some of that back.
``I'm really hurting financially, anything they can squeeze out for me would really help,'' said Juan Marquez, 34, a Charleston, S.C., car insurance salesman who paid $950 for McCorkle's videotapes and pamphlets.
On his nationally televised infomercials, McCorkle promised to put up his own money for customers who located pre-foreclosed or depressed property on sale at half its equity.
He promised to split any profit when the property was sold, vowed that customer support would be available by telephone 24 hours a day and offered a no-questions-asked refund policy.
None of it was true, prosecutors said. McCorkle's businesses, authorities said, raked in as much as $5 million to $6 million a month selling the videotapes and pamphlets.
``Part of our contention is he is not in the business of real estate but he's in the business of selling videos,'' said Jacqueline Dowd, an assistant Florida attorney general.
F. Lee Bailey, McCorkle's attorney, declined comment. In court papers, he has described the McCorkles as victims of an overzealous prosecution.
One of Mrs. McCorkle's attorneys, David Fussell, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case but said he plans to present several customers who got refunds. He said the McCorkles weren't interested in being interviewed.
In his infomercials, McCorkle would tell how he had transformed himself from a $4-an-hour busboy into a multimillionaire. In one spot, Robin Leach, host of the television show ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,'' introduced McCorkle as ``one of the most remarkable real life success stories ... He's accomplished more at age 30 than most people have in a lifetime.''
McCorkle got into real estate in 1990, building up several businesses that promised to show people how to make money. His Orlando-based companies employed as many as 400 people.
Prosecutors have amassed 250 boxes of evidence including computer files, videotapes and telemarketing scripts — much of it seized during raids on McCorkle's home and office.
Prosecutors say the scripts show how McCorkle defrauded his customers. In one, a telemarketer is supposed to tell a customer that packages are being sold to only 12 people in their state and that only two more slots are available — creating an urgency to buy. However, there was no way of determining how many packages were sold in each state, prosecutors say.
Marquez, the insurance salesman, ordered a $49.99 package after seeing McCorkle on late-night television. When he got it, a crucial contract was missing that would allow him to put deals together.
Marquez was told he would have to buy another package to get the contract. The cost was $900.
``In the infomercial, they don't say anything about it being an additional $1,000 or you need a contract to make it work,'' Marquez said.
Investigators estimate tens of thousands of people purchased the packages but they have no way of getting an accurate figure without the McCorkles' cooperation.
``We are continuing to receive complaints,'' Ms. Dowd said.
One of them was by Don Crichton, a 37-year-old real estate agent from Utah, who thought he could make some extra money to help support his four children.
After investing in a $1,500 McCorkle package, Crichton soon requested a refund, but no one answered his call at McCorkle's offices. ``I thought it was strange,'' Crichton said. ``What he said on TV was actually different when you went through his program.''
Investigators said McCorkle gave refunds only when the Better Business Bureau or the government became involved. Under pressure from the Florida attorney general, McCorkle set up a $1 million fund to pay back dissatisfied customers.
Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved.