When they met five years ago, the white pitchman from Canton and the black celebrity trainer in Southern California might have seemed an odd pair. Paul M. Monea had staked a claim in the Wild West of direct marketing. He used a convincing infomercial to sell a dubious pain-relief device by the hundreds of thousands. Billy Blanks ran a gym where he taught Tae-Bo, a workout blending martial arts, boxing, and dance he claims to have invented in 1976, kicking and jabbing to the Rocky soundtrack. Stars and common folk alike packed his Sherman Oaks studio.
By appearances, the men had little in common, but each knew humble beginnings. Blanks grew up poor in Erie, Pennsylvania, one of 15 children, shy and dyslexic. Monea was raised in Alliance, outside Canton, the last of five children born to a Romanian father and a Swedish mother. Jehovah's Witnesses, the family lived on a crane operator's wages.
Each became a kind of evangelist, preaching his own Gospel of Better Living. They saw their lives in dramatic terms. "Lets's go out and help the world," Monea is said to have told Blanks when he sealed the partnership.
Powered by Monea's savvy and Blanks's charisma, Tae-Bo broke loose. Soon, Blanks and his bouncy jabs were everywhere: magazines, morning shows, a whole week of Oprah. The infomercial played 2,000 times a day on cable systems across the country. Tae-Bo Workout went on to become the best-selling video of 1999, surpassing A Bug's Life, The Matrix, and Saving Private Ryan. (Tae-Bo Workout: Advanced was the year's 10th-best seller.) One television time buyer called it "the biggest infomercial ever."
Tae-Bo made Monea, 56, rich. He paid $1.3 million for Mike Tyson's spread in Trumbull County -- seemingly for the hell of it, because he doesn't live there. He is said to own a multimillion-dollar car collection. He rubbed shoulders with President Clinton and donated $1 million to DARE.
Still, Monea, who a decade ago was little more than a frequent target of court liens, is an elusive man. His corporations assume vague identities. His Art Deco office building in Jackson Township, near Belden Village Mall, is unmarked. His public appearances are rare and scripted carefully.
Monea also keeps a battalion of lawyers. His lengthiest court fight was waged with the Food and Drug Administration, over a modified gas-grill igniter he was selling as a pain-relief device. Lawsuits large and small suggest a man who would brawl over a penny left in a urinal.
Tom Myers, Blanks's boyhood martial arts instructor, sued Monea to be paid for mementos of Billy he had provided. Though his asking price was a mere $5,000, Jeff Connelly, Myers's attorney, says Monea hid from sheriff's deputies when they tried to serve him papers. "The court in Erie finally just said, 'Mail it to him.'" The suit was settled.
Retired boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard and former Playboy pinup Carmen Electra also sued Monea for using their names without permission. Three suburban Cleveland women say his production company participated in a scam that made unlawful charges to their credit cards. Eventually, Blanks himself accused Monea of bribing his attorneys. "It's everything about money and nothing about ethics," says Dan Bohlmann, a former consultant to Monea.
A few days after he made that comment, Bohlmann says, a message was left on his answering machine: "Don't talk to the press. You're a dead man."
In 1994, the Akron Better Business Bureau received more than 50 complaints like the one from Robert Anson, an 81-year-old retiree in Delaware, Ohio. Anson had watched a television infomercial about an amazing product called the Stimulator. The magic device purported to relieve almost any kind of pain -- migraines, pulled muscles, carpal tunnel, menstrual cramps -- by delivering an electric current to "acupressure points."
The infomercial featured the endorsements of daredevil Evel Knievel, actress Lee Meriwether, and basketball great Bill Walton. A chiropractor, William S. Gandee of Akron, also appeared in the ad, offering the legitimacy of his white coat. Anson, who suffered from arthritis, picked up the phone and put the $79.95 device (plus shipping and handling) on his credit card.
When the cure arrived, Anson found that he had ordered a gas-grill starter adorned with finger grips. The Stimulator's internal mechanism was literally produced by a company that makes ignition products for gas appliances. "We sell to people like Char-Broil and Sunbeam," says Ken Pim, the president of Ohio-based Channel Products. Each unit cost $1.
Even by infomercial standards, the Stimulator was "quackery," as Akron Better Business Bureau President Victor Wlaszyn put it. And the American public had Gandee and Paul Monea to thank for it.
The Food and Drug Aministration heard the same complaints the BBB did. Since medical devices need FDA approval, which the Stimulator didn't have, the agency said distribution must cease.
Gandee wanted to shut down the operation. So did Pim. His insurer worried about lawsuits. "We steered away from it as best we could," Pim says. (Gandee, who is still in practice, declined an interview request.)
But Monea, the sweet taste of success on his lips, didn't want to stop. He used a third party to buy the igniters from Pim. He also hired an aggressive attorney, Ed Davila.
Davila grew up around West 25th Street in Cleveland. He went to the College of Wooster to study math and physics, but lost none of his city-kid swagger. After law school, he worked in the Ohio Attorney General's Office before establishing a feisty private practice in Canton. He once represented a strip club that thumbed its nose at fundamentalists by playing Christian music, and he kept an accused murderer from serving prison time by arguing that his client was impaired by Prozac. He was, by his admission, "an attorney who didn't like attorneys."
Monea, Davila says, first asked him to help with a pre-Stimulator company called Concept Marketing. The concept was a toilet-seat spray that was supposed to kill the AIDS virus, Davila says. "One thing Paul understands is, you market to people's fear and loathing." (Monea did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
Monea put aside the AIDS spray, once he was introduced to the idea that would become the Stimulator. Davila says it was his job to fend off the FDA. "See if you can keep me in business for six months," Davila claims Monea told him.
Davila did better than that. Even after the FDA filed suit and confiscated 16,000 Stimulators in May 1995, Monea's company, Universal Management, kept filling orders. (He ran the business with his son, Paul A. Monea.) The government appears to have made a tactical mistake, because U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. didn't drape a permanent ban over the device until December 1997.
But by that time, more than 800,000 Stimulators had been sold.
Davila says Monea made millions from the Stimulator, even after the refund order. The way Judge Oliver structured the refund, customers had to write in to get their money back. The government says that less than $9 million -- on sales it estimates to be at least $65 million -- has been returned to customers.
"Where did the rest go?" the BBB's Wlaszyn asks.
Offshore, likely. Davila has a copy of a 1997 letter a Cayman Islands bank sent to Monea regarding something called the Hewlett Corporation. A lawsuit filed by an Atlanta man who peddled a device similar to the Stimulator named two offshore companies -- one located in the Caymans, the other on the Isle of Man -- that Monea supposedly used as John Doe corporations. (The suit was dismissed.) And Bohlmann, the consultant, claims Monea kept books on hiding money from the government in his office.
Yet Kenneth Lanci, a Cleveland consultant Monea employs, insists that between commercial time and the refund, Monea lost money on the Stimulator. As Lanci tells it, the Stimulator was a wonderful invention -- "My own father used it and got relief from it" -- corrupted by bad legal advice. The Paul Monea he knows would never disobey the government. "The lawyer advised them that the product was fine," Lanci says.
He's speaking of Davila, who makes an easy villain. The rambunctious lawyer was indicted on charges that he lied to a judge and kept $110,000 that was supposed to be returned to Stimulator customers. He took a plea and served two and a half years in federal prison.
Davila won't comment on the particulars of his case, for fear of annoying his probation officer. When he says, "I always did a better job for my clients than I did for myself," he sounds like the kid who didn't run when the window got smashed.
The felony conviction not only ruined Davila's law career; it has provided Monea cover from the Stimulator, which Monea's Miami-based attorney Michael Pasano maintains was a "viable, legitimate" product. ("The damn thing worked," Pasano says. "People liked it.") Davila is not at all surprised to find himself cast as the scapegoat. Monea is so self-interested, Davila alleges, he once gave a traffic cop his son's Social Security number.
"I think he's a piece of shit," Davila says.
Prior to 10 years ago, Paul hadn't amounted to much. He married at age 18 and worked as a draftsman. He also dabbled in sales. A seminar he attended in the early 1980s prompted him to start a two-entrées-for-the-price-of-one dinner program, à la the Entertainment Book. Successful in Akron-Canton, Monea expanded his Candlelight Dinner Club to Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, according to his brother, David.
But the sales staff, Monea's brother says, bolted with his client lists, and the business went bankrupt. The experience wounded Monea. Years later, when his accomplishments were read into the Congressional Record, mention was made of individuals and advisers taking "incredible unfair advantage of Paul and his family."
According to court records, Monea wasn't the only one left short. In 1985, the IRS filed a $43,332.99 lien against him for unpaid payroll taxes.
His personal life was messy, too. By 1991, he had four kids and two divorces. "He was living on macaroni and cheese," David says.
At about this time, Paul helped David with a land deal he was putting together. But David Monea's deals tended to end badly for investors.
In the mid-'80s, David was involved with two companies investigated for fraud. One corporation bought Canton's historic Timken Stables. Investors were sold on the idea of transforming the stables into a five-star restaurant, but after three years, no work had been done. The other company, Family Resorts, bought campgrounds near Loudonville and Walhonding with the idea of taking them upscale. When it went bankrupt in 1988, individual investors lost as much as $100,000. A judge held Monea and his partners liable for $7.2 million.
Undeterred, David Monea moved on to his next deal. In 1993, he tried to buy yet another campground, Tall Timbers Lake, near New Philadelphia. But after the Family Resorts fiasco, federal investigators were keeping watch.
Sure that David was running a pyramid scheme, the U.S. Attorney's Office asked a judge to stop the sale. Federal prosecutor James Lynch told the court that David had run 30 failed businesses since the 1970s, and investors hadn't made a dime. A postal inspector testified that David raised Tall Timbers money from three different groups of investors, each without knowledge of the others. The trustee who handled the Family Resorts bankruptcy told the Akron Beacon Journal: "You can't imagine what a marvelous salesperson this Monea is. The outlandish promises he makes -- and people believe him. He's a master manipulator."
Indeed he was. Tall Timbers investors begged U.S. District Judge Sam Bell to allow the sale to proceed; they trusted David to deliver. Bell let the deal go through, grudgingly. "Seldom have I heard testimony of so many sheep who are pleading to be sheared," he said.
Investors got what they asked for. More than $400,000 was lost when Tall Timbers went bust. David was charged with mail fraud, filing false tax returns, tax fraud, money laundering, and check kiting. "The money he received, he just squandered," Lynch says.
Like any self-respecting con man, David tried to run from his misdeeds until the very end. He delayed his trial six months by complaining of pain caused by a hernia. In 1995, a federal jury finally found him guilty on seven counts, and the judge sentenced him to four and a half years in prison. While serving that term, he was convicted of bank-fraud charges stemming from Family Resorts.
David Monea, 66, left prison two years ago. Today, he blames meddlesome investors, vindictive prosecutors, worthless defense attorneys, and obtuse judges for his plight. "You'll never meet a fairer, more honest person than me," he says.
As he states his case, his wife, Nancy, can be heard in the background, ridiculing him for speaking to someone who may or may not be a reporter. "She's going out of her mind that I'm talking to you," he says. She needn't have worried. Her husband is a master of inconsequential detail and selective memory.
At David's trial, witnesses testified to Paul's involvement. One said Paul had led her and her husband through Tall Timbers; after the tour, they put up $25,000. Another witness ponied up $20,000 after meeting with Paul and David. Lynch, however, says prosecutors lacked the evidence to bring charges against the younger Monea.
Paul not only escaped prosecution; he soon flourished with the Stimulator. A few months after David's conviction, Paul treated a dozen or so family members to a trip to Atlanta to watch the Indians play in the 1995 World Series. "I love to do things for my children," he told the Beacon Journal reporter who spotted the family at the game. "Twenty or thirty years from now, those are the things they'll remember."
Generosity extended only so far, apparently. While incarcerated, David repeatedly pleaded for Paul's financial help, according to letters Davila saved. His wife on the brink of eviction from their home, David felt abandoned and threatened to take his brother to court. "Paul has done everything he can to alienate me since I went to prison 192 days ago with his lies," he wrote. David also indicated that his wife worried that Paul might harm her. "She is afraid to stay in her house at night by herself because of Paul. She stays up all night and sleeps a few hours in the daytime."
Asked about the letters today, David says Paul must have been too busy to respond to his pleas. He also suggests that Davila garbled communication between the brothers. "Everything I did was through Ed," he says. And his wife's fear of Paul? David says she overreacted. "Women get this way," he explains.
It is probably worth noting at this point that Paul is helping David financially. "When the time is right, he'll put me in business," David says.
Davila, for one, doubts David's sincerity. "He's a fuckin' liar," he says.
Paul Monea tried to go Hollywood. He produced a sitcom in 1996 called No Sweat. Set in a Venice Beach gym, the show promised the laughs of Cheers and the bodies of Baywatch. A pilot episode was shot. Nothing became of it.
A year later, Monea met Billy Blanks. Tae-Bo may not have satisfied Monea's craving for studio glory, but it was plenty lucrative. By one estimate, video sales grossed between $100 million and $150 million in two years. But even when Monea discovers a genuine product, like Tae-Bo, he has trouble suppressing the huckster within.
In December 1998, a Lakewood woman called to order the Tae-Bo video as a Christmas gift for her sister. Almost a year later, Brandy Ritt noticed an $84 charge on her credit card for something called MWI Essentials. She had no idea what MWI Essentials was. After a little digging, she found a previous $72 MWI Essentials charge she had missed. Ritt, who has moved to Avon, learned that MWI Essentials was a name used by MemberWorks, a national shoppers' club.
What happened: Monea's NCP Marketing had entered into a deal with MemberWorks and West, the telemarketer fielding Tae-Bo orders. Reading from a script, the phone operator would offer Tae-Bo customers a risk-free membership in a shoppers' club that offered discounts for a range of goods and services. Since the operator already had the credit card number, a mumbled "OK" from the caller was all that was needed to close the sale. NCP received $20 for each one, according to court records.
Ritt, however, says she has no memory of being offered the membership, let alone approving it or receiving any benefit. Via the Internet, Ritt's sister found two Northeast Ohio women who shared a similar experience. They contacted an attorney, Jack Landskroner, who filed suit against NCP, MemberWorks, and West. "This was a consumer fraud," Landskroner says.
MemberWorks, at least, is no stranger to the allegation. The company has settled consumer-protection complaints brought by attorneys general in California, Minnesota, and New York. (MemberWorks and West did not return Scene's calls.)
The Cleveland case is on appeal. Landskroner is protesting a Cuyahoga County judge's decision to deny it class-action status. A similar suit, which does not name NCP as defendant, has been filed in San Diego.
The Cleveland women's MemberWorks charges have been refunded, and NCP attorney Jeff Laytin says Tae-Bo is not liable for any supposed fraud. "We just happened to be the product they were upselling at the time," he says.
Near the time Brandy Ritt ordered the Tae-Bo video, Monea hired Dan Bohlmann, a West Coast marketing consultant. Bohlmann was retained to further the cause of Tae-Bo. He also helped Monea step into public life.
Before Bohlmann's arrival, Monea shied from most publicity. When The Los Angeles Times profiled Blanks, for instance, Monea kept his end of the interview short. "We like to stay in the background," he said. "We're just some little guys in Ohio. This is really just Billy's story."
Yet Bohlmann found Monea eager to show he was a good guy. He talked about a 400-mile walk he had made in 1974 to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association and brought out piles of letters from satisfied Stimulator customers. Here was someone, Bohlmann concluded, who had been harassed by the feds and cheated by his advisers. "He has a real good sales pitch," Bohlmann says.
Bohlmann went to work on a public-relations campaign. One of his first efforts was to have Monea's accomplishments read into the Congressional Record.
It is a common way for members of Congress to recognize citizens, usually constituents marking a life event. The record entry before Monea's applauds a retiring motor-shop technician in Fresno. Tributes are not actually read on the House floor. The record is more of a keepsake item.
Monea, however, used the occasion to dress himself in saint's robes. Bohlmann tapped U.S. Representative James Barcia, a Michigan Democrat, for the job. "Mr. Speaker," Barcia's "remarks" began, "it gives me great pleasure today to honor a dedicated father of four wonderful children and three grandchildren, a loyal and supportive friend, an outstanding humanitarian and a fiercely focused hardworking self-made entrepreneur, respected by all his peers, Paul Mark Monea."
The script detailed Monea's triumph over incalculable odds, his charity, and his challenge to the young to "focus on the future with honesty, integrity, and a spirit of innovation in your hearts." Monea's work was never about making money, the record continued. "On the contrary, it is always about providing a better way of life for others. This inward desire to provide innovative products because 'It's the right thing to do' puts Paul Monea in a class by himself."
Bohlmann says he was referred to Barcia through a contact at the Adam Walsh Foundation. "There was no quid pro quo," Bohlmann says, but shortly thereafter, Monea donated $2,000 to the congressman's campaign. It was a mere tip, compared with what was to come. Between August 1999 and June 2000, NCP Marketing, Monea's Tae-Bo arm, gave $195,000 to various national Democratic Party committees. Bohlmann personally gave $12,000 to Democratic causes and $1,000 to the GOP. Integrity Global Marketing, another Monea company, gave $10,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The money did not go unnoticed, at least by Democrats. It is likely that the contributions had something to do with Blanks being named to the Presidential Council on Fitness and Sports in 2000. For Monea, the contributions also afforded a chance to rub shoulders with President Clinton at a Playhouse Square fund-raiser and again at a Christmas party at Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe's home outside Washington, D.C.
Monea's giving was not confined to political causes. He also donated $1 million to DARE, the antidrug program often maligned for putting showmanship ahead of results. Monea presented the donation, the largest in DARE's history, at three different ceremonies, including one at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At another stop on the DARE tour, in Indianapolis, Blanks and Monea visited a house being built by Habitat for Humanity. "They grabbed a hammer for five minutes," Bohlmann says.
Bohlmann grew suspicious of Monea's charity. It's the rare philanthropist who doesn't enjoy at least some acknowledgment for his gifts, but Monea's need for notice sickened Bohlmann. He says Monea measured a charity's worth by asking, "What am I going to get out of it?" Monea once paid $5,000 for a three-page spread in a vanity magazine called Palm Beach Society. The text expanded on the slobbering Congressional Record biography, while the photos showed Monea locking arms with various politicians and celebrities-for-hire such as Bruce Jenner and Steven Seagal.
There is also the thought that Monea sought political friends and good works to influence a possible federal criminal investigation for, say, tax evasion. The U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment on such things, and Lanci, Monea's consultant, says he is certain there is no such probe. "If the government was going to indict him, they would have indicted him," he says.
Davila, though, says that, this past summer, he was interviewed by a postal inspector and an IRS criminal investigator about Monea's business and his offshore accounts. Davila also alleges that Monea falsely accused him of stealing a Cadillac and, since Davila's release from prison, hired a private investigator to follow him. "I helped make Paul Monea a multimillionaire, and all I ask is that he leave me alone," Davila says. "Any trouble[s] that he now has with the federal authorities are his own doing and have nothing to do with me."
Asked about the alleged criminal investigation, Pasano, Monea's Miami attorney, is quick to warn against "misinformation" provided by "people out there who don't have nice things to say . . . Where you stand depends on where you sit." But while Pasano says the Moneas have made peace with the FDA, he did not confirm or deny the existence of a criminal investigation.
Public displays of kindness were not the only thing that drove Bohlmann away. He says Monea and son ("They're just like clones") backed out of Tae-Bo deals that he had brokered, only to negotiate behind his back and avoid paying his commission. He also found Monea HQ a creepy place to work. Bohlmann compares its level of secrecy to that of the CIA. "They're greedy. They're power-hungry. They're obsessed," he says.
The Tae-Bo star reached a similar conclusion. Blanks and his wife, Gayle, filed suit last year against their Los Angeles attorneys, John Younesi and Jan Yoss. The suit alleges that Younesi and Yoss were "utterly compromised and beholden to a different master" -- Paul Monea -- when Blanks signed a long-term contract with NCP. Younesi and Yoss, the suit alleges, made not a single modification to an agreement NCP proposed. (Among the bad terms, Blanks cannot audit NCP's books, supposedly.) Around the time the deal was signed, Younesi rolled up to Blanks's studio in a $300,000 Bentley. The Blankses believe it was an "inappropriate gift, concession or bribe to Younesi from NCP or Monea Sr.," according to court documents.
The Blankses settled with Younesi and Yoss out of court. In a brief interview, Younesi describes the suit as "frivolous," yet he dodges a question about whether he has worked for Monea. Lanci, Monea's adviser, does not deny that Younesi and Yoss got close to Monea. "The relationship became a team," he says.
Blanks also went to arbitration with Monea. Laytin, the attorney for NCP, says what happened with Blanks is a "sad situation." Lanci uses stronger language. In his description, Blanks is a man-child, incapable of making a business decision for himself and ungrateful to "the only guy who put $40 million in his pocket." He adds, "Billy probably operates at a fifth-grade education." Of course, Blanks was smart enough to move to L.A., open a gym, and forge celebrity friendships without Paul Monea's help.
As for the Bentleys, Lanci does not deny that Monea and Younesi went out one day and treated themselves; but as he knows the facts, Monea did not cut a check for Younesi's Bentley. Lanci finds the point moot anyway. "If he did, what's the difference?"
Last January, the director of the FDA's Division of Compliance and Enforcement sent a letter to Stacey Cosgrove of Belgrade, Montana. FDA officials were concerned about claims made on Cosgrove's website, www.colostrum-option.com. Colostrum is a thick fluid secreted by the mammary glands. Bovines produce gallons of the stuff for the first two days after giving birth. Supposedly rich with nutrients, it came into vogue as a dietary supplement in the late '90s.
Cosgrove's website boasted that there was little colostrum couldn't do. It helps with health problems ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer's, depression to diabetes, food allergies to fibromyalgia, lupus to leaky gut syndrome. Colostrum was even touted as a protection against anthrax.
Such claims, the FDA letter said, cause colostrum to be classified as a drug, and drugs cannot be marketed without FDA approval. Cosgrove replied a few months later and said the website would be modified.
It turns out, however, that Cosgrove is merely the webmaster for Nature's Strength Colostrum, one of several nutritional supplements distributed by Malibu Naturals, also known as Tae-Bo Fitness. The latest Monea family endeavor not only distributes vitamins, Carb-Lo bars, and Gro-Lean human growth hormone enhancers; it is a "network marketing company" for home-based entrepreneurs.
Company literature does not use the word pyramid. Instead, it is a "matrix."
The corporate address listed for Malibu Naturals is on South Arlington Road in Akron. Scene went to visit Suite E301 and wound up standing in a Mail Boxes Etc.