Inside the offices of Mike Warren Sports on Sisson Street, Lasky was the big guy with the shoulders of a fullback who walked with the confidence of a man making good money selling. What? Himself, mostly. He talked tough and was usually seen with a bodyguard or two. Every so often the troops would look up from their computer terminals and see him mounting the podium in front of the phone room. Time for a pep talk.
" 'You can get more money from people over a telephone than using a gun,' " he'd say, recalls Patrick Wolff, a Baltimore cabdriver who worked telephones for Lasky in 1989 and 1990. "That was his favorite statement. The sad part is, it's true."
But the most dramatic proof of this Lasky sales maxim was yet to come. By 1990, Lasky was on to the Next Big Thing.
His buddy John DiNatale, a veteran horse trainer, remembers the morning in 1991 when he first heard about it. He's sitting in Lasky's office drinking coffee, talking horses. Spread out on Lasky's desk is not the Daily Racing Form but -- get this -- an astrology chart. Lasky runs the idea by him. Picture this, he says, a national network of psychics. Readings available by telephone, through a 900-number. What do you think?
DiNatale looks at his friend and laughs. "I said, 'What are you doing over here? Are you going off the deep end? ... Are we going psychic or psycho?' " he recalls.
Some joke. In a few years, the 30-minute infomercial starring Dionne Warwick and "Psychic to the Stars" Linda M. Georgian would be the top-selling infomercial in the young history of the business. Calls come in by the millions at $3.99 a minute. Up to 1,200 psychics -- each having been interviewed and screened by other psychics -- are doing shift work, giving readings into telephone headsets from their living rooms and kitchens.
In the best years, Inphomation spends $1 million a week on advertising and grosses nearly three times that in sales. Like a vision of fame and fortune glowing in a crystal ball, it seems almost too good to be true.
But it is true, fabulously true, until reality begins to intrude. Lower-priced competitors. Higher advertising prices. An ever more crowded field of infomercials. Inphomation blames its demise on industry changes and several companies -- AT&T, MCI Communications, among others -- withholding tens of millions owed it. People inside the company offer another version -- anonymously, of course. They say spending on advertising and infomercial production was out of control, that there was no system for checking the effectiveness of advertising, despite the enormous sums being spent on it.
"It just wasn't run like a business," says one former department head.
Now, several years later, there's another rude intrusion on the Lasky dream: U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Schneider. He explains that certain things are required of a "debtor in possession." That would be Lasky, the man driving away from bankruptcy court at the end of the day in a black Mercedes, heading back to the Harbor Inn's Presidential Suite, his business tens of millions in the hole.
The judge is hearing that certain rules are not being followed. He's hearing that company equipment was moved without the court's knowledge, that employees being paid under special court order were fired without notice to the court. He's hearing that the man in charge of company finances was sworn in as treasurer and signed the bankruptcy petition, but doesn't recall this happening or why.
An incredulous Lasky dismisses the notion that anything improper is going on. "I don't do things like that, it's not my personality," he tells the court. "Almost everything I do, I always go through my attorney. Because of myself, my family, my business. I believe in holding myself on high."
It's a refrain he echoes later in an hourlong interview. "The truth is just the truth. That's all that I am. Little people lie. I'm always dealing in truth."
He looks you in the eye and says it with such assurance that you might almost forget that you are talking to a man who has made his fortune selling sure bets and psychic readings. You might wonder if the state of Maryland wronged a good man when the Racing Commission cited Mike Warren Sports for deceptive advertising in the 1980s, when the state attorney general got after him for not refunding bad-bet money, as promised in his ads. Maybe the state was mistaken in taking him to court to get refunds for members of the Pikesville Nautilus Club, left in the lurch when Lasky abruptly closed the club in 1985. The U.S. Postal Service, too, when it shut down his direct-mail astrology operation in 1991, compelling Lasky not to admit anything improper, but to sign a cease and desist order.
Talk to Lasky and his lawyer and close adviser, Robert B. Schulman, and you learn that Lasky is a perennial innocent, just trying to do right in a world of corporate thieves, litigious liars, gossips, errant judges and know-nothing reporters.