The sure thing His Psychic Friends Network business is falling apart. He's got a long trail of lawsuits and loathing behind him. But Mike Lasky is undaunted. He knows he'll be back, and both friends and foes know better than to bet against him.

March 08, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

Clarification

A story in Sunday's Today section on Baltimore entrepreneur Michael Lasky referred to back rent and unpaid loan payments owed the city of Baltimore by the owner of Harbor Inn Pier 5, a partnership including Lasky. The payments, totaling more than $158,000, were made the week the story went to press.

Mike Lasky can see it. He gets these visions, you could say. Gifts from God, he calls them. He can see that this new thing, this radio talk-show, 900-number deal, this is going to be huge, much bigger than the Psychic Friends Network, the TV "infomercial" that made him King of Telephone Psychics. This is going to make Dionne Warwick and her Psychic Friends taking $3.99-a-minute calls look like a storefront palm reader with a bead curtain and a blue light bulb. That was yesterday, this is today. "My car doesn't have reverse," Lasky likes to tell people. "I don't have a rear-view mirror."

Lasky's warming to the subject, shifting his big frame in the chair. "I'm enjoying this right now," he says. His hazel eyes are framed today in delicate, silver-rimmed eyeglasses, matching the gray suit, the subtly patterned pale shirt, the navy-and-gray-striped tie. In the best days at Lasky's Inphomation Communications Inc., clothes arrived at the Pikesville office by the box. Delivery from Armani for Lasky -- president, CEO, "chief cook, bottle washer, the whole 9 yards," as he puts it. Michael Warren Lasky, dressed to kill as usual, eyeing his mark.

"This is the program to beat all programs," he's saying. He's got the numbers to back it up, from a test run a couple of years ago, he says. "We've never had these numbers with Psychic Friends Network."

Once again, Mike Lasky -- former tout, former health club owner, celebrated buyer of the most expensive baseball ever hit -- is on the move. In his mind's eye he's setting up the next tent show.

"I'm an idea man. I come up with ideas," he says. His newest? A nationally syndicated psychic radio show. Give callers on hold the option to switch to a 900-number psychic at $3.99 a minute. Sell psychic services, who knows what else. Sell the "hold" time to advertisers. A psychic magazine, half a million circulation, easy. Lasky can see it, just as he saw Psychic Friends -- a success, he says, "beyond anybody's wildest imagination. Except mine. I knew it. Saw it. I sensed it. I knew it would be the greatest thing since sliced bread."

But today something's wrong. The pitch doesn't seem to be working. Perhaps the trouble is the location. Today Lasky's not sitting in the Inphomation conference room, the one with the little lights hung low over the shiny dark table and the television screen rising from a console at the touch of a button. He's not in his Presidential Suite in the Harbor Inn Pier 5 -- a $1,500-a-night room with Jacuzzi, wet bar and big Inner Harbor views.

On this February morning Lasky is in the witness chair in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore. He is under oath. He's addressing himself not to a prospective investor but to Judge James F. Schneider, a 50-year-old man with a courteous demeanor and a sense of humor but also with 16 years' experience on the bankruptcy bench. Schneider has heard a few stories in his time.

The judge is peering down at Lasky through tortoise-shell eyeglasses. With his receding hairline, delicate features, detached manner, it's as if George Will is sitting up there in a black robe. Schneider appears unimpressed with Lasky's Fabulous New Venture. He's concerned instead with Lasky's Defunct Last Venture: Inphomation, the parent company of Psychic Friends, a company that in 1994 reported $150 million in sales but now has filed for reorganization under Chapter 11. He's concerned with the $26 million in debts, the list of 200 creditors waiting to be paid, the motion before him by some of those creditors to boot Lasky out of management and approve a

federally appointed trustee to run things.

Lasky's got the solution, the salvation of his company. But Schneider doesn't share his enthusiasm.

"It looks like you're letting Inphomation go dormant while you open up another secret company," says Schneider. "What we're worried about is if Inphomation will go dead, all these creditors are not going to get a dime. ... What is your answer, Mr. Lasky?"

The small courtroom falls silent. It's the sound of worlds colliding, the world of accountability vs. Lasky's world of the Next Big Thing. At 56 years old, Lasky has probably opened and closed more businesses than everybody else in the courtroom combined: The horse racing tout sheet. The telephone sports-betting advisory service. The health club. The sports pager business. The direct-mail astrologer, "Roxanna." Always the next thing. Then came the new world of the 30-minute television infomercial, a world in which Lasky soared to the top, hailed in trade publications as a marketing genius, creator of the Psychic Friends Network, the most successful infomercial ever.

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