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Marked Man

Rapping to the masses: Matthew Lesko with Darryl Wheeler, left, and Matthew Talley, trying a new infomercial jingle that promises to
Rapping to the masses: Matthew Lesko with Darryl Wheeler, left, and Matthew Talley, trying a new infomercial jingle that promises to "getcha money." (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

They discuss that for a while, exchanging ideas in a brainstorming session that's interrupted briefly when a guy who recognizes Lesko from TV stops by to shake his hand. Finally, after a half-hour of tinkering with the script, Lesko is pleased.

"Let's just shoot the bloody thing," he says, "and see how it goes."

'I Didn't Write a Lick'

"I was just named fifth-best infomercial of all time," Lesko says.

He's sitting in his kitchen in Kensington, drinking a giant cappuccino that his wife, Wendy, just brewed for him. He rummages around, finds his copy of Stuff magazine and flips to a story called "15 Greatest Infomercials Ever!" Sure enough, his "free money" infomercials are ranked No. 5, right behind the famous Ginsu knife ads and just ahead of Miss Cleo's Mind and Spirit Psychic Network.

What an honor! It's a fitting testament to the genius who made a career out of what might be the ultimate advertising slogan -- free money! For decades, he has used that enticing slogan to sell books that are basically just lists of government programs that may or may not be able to help you out.

It all began back in the 1970s, when Lesko, a Navy veteran with an MBA from American University, founded Washington Researchers, a company that ferreted out information about government programs for corporate clients. In 1982, he published his first book, "Getting Yours: The Complete Guide to Government Money."

"I plagiarized the whole thing," he says proudly. "I didn't write a lick."

He took the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, an 1,100-page government guide to grants and loans, condensed it to 300 pages, added a few snappy introductory paragraphs and -- voila! -- he was on the New York Times bestseller list.

A year later, he produced another book cribbed from government documents -- "Information USA," a 1,000-page guide to getting free info from the feds. That one also made the Times bestseller list -- the same list that included "The Color Purple" and "Garfield Eats His Heart Out."

His business model is simple: "I get stuff for free and I sell it for as much as I can get."

He didn't work very hard writing the books, but he hustled like crazy promoting them. Pimped out in bright red or yellow or chartreuse clothing -- he hadn't invented the question-mark suit yet -- he'd appear on any TV show anywhere, from a Podunk morning show to Oprah, Letterman and Larry King, and he'd start yelling about how his latest book tells you how to get free money! Lesko understands the secret of being a successful talk-show guest: "Just act like an [expletive]."

He sold his first half-dozen books to New York publishers, but after that, he figured he could make more money printing them himself and selling them with 800-numbers advertised on infomercials. It worked: He's sold more than 3 million copies of 100 different books, tapes and DVDs, he says. All of them are about getting stuff free.

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