Cortes W. Randell, a Washington entrepreneur whose business ventures led him to wealth and prominence and twice to prison, is back in town and back in business.

As in the past, Randell has built a company that may be worth millions on little more than an idea and his legendary abilities as a salesman. The success story of his latest business venture is a tale of how -- in a city that feeds on information -- money can be made by repackaging and selling what's available free from the federal government. The new business has left government officials and commercial purveyors of information alike scratching their heads and wondering why someone didn't do it before.

Randell is president of Federal Information Systems Corp., whose Federal News Service subsidiary is taking in thousands of dollars a week selling transcripts of official goings on, such as White House and State Department briefings and press conferences, this summer's Iran-contra hearings and, most recently, the confirmation hearings for Judge Robert H. Bork.

"Since I've returned {from prison}, I've tried to run the business honestly and successfully. I feel we've succeeded," Randell said in his first interview in 15 years. On two separate occasions Randell was sentenced to prison on charges of fraud in connection with two of his businesses.

In three years, Federal Information, which uses satellites to transmit information, has expanded and now provides transcripts of special "backgrounders" by government officials and television news programs, such as the McNeil-Lehrer Report, to more than 300 clients, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the three major television networks, foreign embassies, law firms, lobbying groups and government agencies. Randell declined to describe how much he charges for the services, saying it depends on what items are taken by each subscriber.

The company recently provided the transcript of Oliver North's congressional testimony to Pocket Books for the best-selling book, "Taking the Stand: The Testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North."

Randell said he has talked to publishers about marketing a book of transcripts from the congressional hearings on televised ministries prompted by revelations about the finances of Jim and Tammy Bakker. And by winter, he said, he expects to be transmitting by satellite to embassies, news organizations and military bases in 40 foreign countries.

As a result of this rapid growth, several companies have expressed an interest in buying the company.

While the transcription business has been steadily growing with satisfied customers, one party that isn't quite so satisfied is the White House. The State and Defense departments provide direct feeds of press briefings over phone lines to major news organizations, but the White House does not.

The ground rules for White House briefings are that media representatives with access to the briefing rooms can take notes or tape the briefings, but that such notes or tapes are for the reporter's personal use only and cannot be replayed on radio or television, according to Christopher Cox, senior associate counsel to the president.

Federal's use of the briefings calls into question the ability of the White House to have deep background briefings without the speaker being identified for the record, Cox said.

As Federal's business has become increasingly successful, its principals have become embroiled in lawsuits that outline an impenetrable thicket of charges, countercharges, threats and acrimony. These legal troubles, according to sources, have scared away several potential buyers.

Soon after his return to the Washington area from his second prison term, Randell formed a partnership with Richard Lee Boyd, a 35-year-old Washington journalist and businessman who had started the business to provide transcripts of crucial Washington hearings, briefings and other events.

Boyd had previously been in the business, doing official transcripts for the White House until he was convicted of overcharging for his services.

Now, Boyd has filed a lawsuit against Randell in Superior Court in the District of Columbia, seeking $4 million in compensatory and punitive damages. He contends that Randell issued stock to himself but none to Boyd, and has kept Boyd from collecting his share of the firm's profits.

Last month, Randell and Carol L. DeHaven, Boyd's estranged wife, filed a countersuit against Boyd in U.S. District Court for $5.6 million, alleging that Boyd has interfered with and harmed the business by stealing mail addressed to the company, talking with newspapers -- including The New York Times and The Washington Post -- about the business, and fraudulently assigning Boyd's stock to another organization. The same suit asks the court to set aside any claim Boyd has to the shares of Federal.

A Washington native and University of Virginia graduate, Randell, 52, came back to town in 1984 after serving four years in Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Va., for his conviction on charges including fraud in connection with one of his ventures.

A onetime Wall Street whiz kid, Cortes Randell's name was as well-known in the annals of white-collar crime in the 1970s as Ivan F. Boesky's is today.

In 1965, Randell founded the National Student Marketing Corp., a Washington and New York firm that promoted products and services to the nation's college students. It was what Wall Street considered an unbeatable idea that begat headlines of stock splits, profits and the acquisition of 25 subsidiaries. The stock soared from $6 to $144.

And as his star rose on Wall Street, Randell became a conspicuous consumer of the good life, with a Lear jet to take him to business appointments, a mansion on the Potomac and a 55-foot yacht.

By 1970, however, Randell's business began to unravel. That year he resigned as president of NSMC "for personal reasons" after the firm posted a loss of $1.5 million in one quarter. In 1975, Randell was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to stock fraud conspiracy and three other counts of fraud for misrepresenting the earnings of the corporation. The federal government in its indictment accused Randell of causing those who purchased stock in NSMC to lose millions of dollars while he made $3 million on the sale of his stock in one year alone.

Randell went to jail a second time in 1981 after he was convicted of mail fraud for his role in the collapse of National Commercial Credit Corp., a bankrupt Alexandria real estate investment firm in which more than 100 people lost a total of more than $1 million. Randell was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years probation for his convictions on five counts of securities fraud, seven counts of mail fraud, four counts of interstate transportation of funds obtained by fraud, and one count of making a false statement to the Veterans Administration.

"Being an entrepreneur is dangerous," Randell said in an interview. Crying softly at one point, he said, "You don't know all the suffering we've gone through because of the press. You don't know how difficult it is to meet with you."

At first, Randell declined to be interviewed, saying the staff of Federal News Service "works very hard to service the Post. ... When somebody writes an article about the owner having served time in prison, they're not going to want to service the account." (The Post has several subscriptions to Federal's service, for which it paid $8,530 in the first nine months of the year.)

Randell also said that "just because I was in prison 20 years ago -- well, I wasn't really in prison -- that's no reason to do this." Randell's first incarceration was in Federal Prison Camp at Allenwood, Pa., a minimum security prison. His second in Petersburg, a medium-security prison, from which he was released in 1984.

"The Lord has let me be successful in business," Randell said. "I have gotten some bad advice and probably made some bad choices in terms of people" in the past. "But I've been more careful this time."

Saying he'd waited 20 years to talk about what happened at NSMC, Randell poured out his explanation. While many companies were selling for high multiples in those days, only his business was singled out for prosecution, he said. "The point is, we built a big, strong company," Randell said. "And the government chose that one to make an example of," said his wife, Joan.

"In both situations, I never intended to defraud anybody," he said of his two prison terms. "I was just trying to build a company."

When asked about the thousands of investors who lost money in his best-known business ventures -- NSMC and National Commercial Credit -- Randell launched into a discussion of how successful his businesses were and how much "gossip" the press has picked up about him.

"The lowest the stock ever got was $1," he said, noting that because of two 2-for-1 stock splits, many buyers sold the stock for "five times what they bought it for." Randell did not answer questions about those who bought the stock at much higher prices or at its high of $144.

Randell said he had decided not to have investors, loans or press interviews when he began working at Federal. "I made that decision for obvious reasons," he said. "If you don't have lenders or investors, who can criticize you?"

But Boyd has not been reluctant to criticize. The legal question concerning Randell's present business is whether the news service is truly his.

Boyd hired Randell as a salesman and marketing manager for the fledgling service in the summer of 1984, shortly after Randell was released from Petersburg. However, Randell contends that while Boyd talked with him about a business that would provide transcripts for the media, he was the real power behind Federal's success.

"I have never in my life worked for Dick and will never work for Dick," Randell said. And, while he admits that he and Boyd were to be partners, he adds: "I came up with the name, got customers, decided what the product was, designed the leaflet."

Boyd called Randell's account "typical propaganda of Cort's. Sometimes there's no truth in what he says, sometimes there's a fragment of truth, but it's twisted."

In 1983, Boyd was convicted of overbilling the Reagan administration more than $13,000 for transcribing presidential news conferences and other work done by his company, North American Reporting Inc. It was while Boyd was in Allenwood Federal Prison for the overbilling, between November 1985 and July 1986, that their partnership came to an end, Boyd said in interviews.

Boyd's lawsuit alleges that while Boyd was at Allenwood, Randell ignored an agreement that each would receive 50 percent of the shares of Federal and issued 50,000 shares of stock to himself and none to Boyd.

The suit also names Joan Randell and John Giovannoni, a Florida accountant, both of whom are on FISC's board of directors.

Randell said that while he agrees that Boyd and his wife should get 50 percent of the company's shares, he is acting on the advice of his lawyers, who have told him that he should not issue the shares because the Boyds are divorcing. They advise that he should wait until the courts decide what the division of their property should be, Randell said.

"Boyd has a big ax to grind," Randell said. "He will get his stock in the company. We never tried to hurt him."

Randell said later that he hoped Federal would be able to buy out Boyd's interest in the company for less than 50 percent of the company's value.

Randell has said he is concerned that the legal action will affect the ability to sell the company. "Sure the lawsuit affects the value," said Lee Ellis, an attorney representing Boyd. "It's a typical business problem, but you put a gloss on it when you talk about Cort Randell."

"We've worked so hard to build up a service," said Randell. "We want to turn it over to a big media company, so it will be well-managed.

"Nobody has done what we've done," said Randell's wife, Joan. "He's got a track record for good companies. That's why people do business with him.