While controversy boils over Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Venezuela's president this week, another controversy is bubbling about one of his ventures.
Seems his "age-defying" diet shake isn't just a philanthropic endeavor anymore. The televangelist is looking to turn a profit from it.
After four years of touting the benefits of his weight-loss shake via his nonprofit Christian Broadcasting Network and sending the recipe to any viewer who asked for it, Robertson has licensed the shake for national distribution by General Nutrition Corp., a Pittsburgh-based health-food chain.
Robertson says he is exercising his right to engage in a business venture, but an evangelical watchdog group says he is abusing his nonprofit status. Moreover, a Texas bodybuilder who thought he was going to be Robertson's Jared is quite publicly angry that he's not.
Phil Busch had dreamed of inspiring millions of Robertson's viewers to lose weight drinking the evangelist's shake, just as Jared Fogle did for Subway sandwiches. Busch says he lost 198 pounds in 15 months drinking Robertson's concoction, leading to an on-camera interview with the Virginia Beach-based broadcaster on the daily TV show "The 700 Club" last month.
But Busch's hopes have been dashed by the crosscurrents of commerce. The man commercially hawking Robertson's shake is Pittsburgh bodybuilder Dave Hawk, who's affiliated with GNC.
Now Busch is hopping mad -- all 210 muscular pounds of him -- and the recriminations are flying.
Busch says Robertson played him for a sucker, using him to hype his product when it was a nonprofit venture, then dropping him like a hot, carb-filled potato when he went commercial. Robertson and Hawk say they've been publicly maligned by Busch and have threatened legal action.
A multimillionaire religious broadcaster and former presidential candidate, Robertson added "health-food promoter" to his wide-ranging resume when he introduced "Pat's Age-Defying Shake" to viewers in August 2001.
Robertson, now 75, has said he devised the recipe himself after he turned 60 and began studying the connections among nutrition, aging and health.
Robertson says 1.5 million people have requested the recipe, which includes ingredients such as safflower oil, protein powder and vinegar. One of them was Busch, 41, a resident of suburban Dallas who bills himself as a bodybuilder, fitness trainer and motivational speaker. He says he weighed 410 pounds when he saw Robertson promoting his shake on TV in 2003 and decided to give it a try.
By following Robertson's diet in conjunction with an exercise program, Busch says, he lost 198 pounds and turned himself into a mass of muscle without using steroids or other drugs. Last year, he placed eighth in an International Natural Bodybuilding Association competition.
This spring, Robertson launched a 12-week Weight Loss Challenge on "The 700 Club," suggesting viewers slim down with exercise and a healthful diet, including two daily doses of his shake.
When Busch heard about the challenge, he sent before-and-after pictures of himself to CBN.
"They were ecstatic," Busch said in an interview. "They wanted to put my pictures on TV. I said okay."
Robertson showed the pictures to viewers early in the Weight Loss Challenge and included them in a commercial that ran for several weeks promoting the program.
Shortly before the end of the Weight Loss Challenge, Busch said, his wife noticed a GNC store display promoting a new product. Robertson's weight-loss shake had been turned into a powdered mix in a can: nine servings for $21.99.
In large type on the front of the can, the product is labeled "Pat's Diet Shake." In smaller type on the back, it is identified as "Dr. Pat Robertson's Diet Shake." Robertson is not a medical doctor, but he has a law degree, known formally as a juris doctor, from Yale Law School.
At the end of the Weight Loss Challenge in July, CBN flew Busch to Virginia Beach for a "700 Club" interview with Robertson. On the show, Robertson introduced Busch as "Exhibit A-plus" for his diet plan and asked if he used his shake.
"Absolutely, and it's very essential and it helps tremendously," Busch replied. "Matter of fact, now I just go to the GNC and get the weight-loss shake."
Busch says representatives of Robertson's organization led him to believe that he might be able to get a contract as a national spokesman for the shake, but nothing came of those discussions. He is bitter about being elbowed aside by Hawk, the bodybuilder affiliated with GNC.
"I'm the one that lost 198 pounds," Busch said. "I felt like an idiot. I felt used. All I was trying to do was inspire people. I did it for the viewers -- not to help Pat Robertson make money."
Hawk, a former Mr. USA and Mr. World, made two appearances on "The 700 Club" during the Weight Loss Challenge. On his second appearance, he wore a shirt bearing the GNC logo.
On his Web site, which promotes Robertson's shake, Hawk says he "works extensively with General Nutrition Corp. in a variety of capacities."
Busch has posted a broadside on his own Web site disavowing his endorsement of the shake: "I do not endorse this product and in no way should you expect the results I have achieved by consuming this product alone."
In a written reply to an inquiry from the Virginian-Pilot, Louis A. Isakoff, an attorney representing Robertson, characterized Busch's allegations as "bizarre, completely untrue and sadly mistaken."
Isakoff wrote that Busch was never offered an endorsement contract by Robertson or CBN. He said Robertson licensed his name and shake recipe to Basic Organics, a Columbus, Ohio-based manufacturer that produces the product and distributes it in GNC stores.
"Dr. Robertson, as a private individual, certainly has the right to engage in personal business ventures," Isakoff wrote.
Hawk is a consultant for Basic Organics.
Although ads for the shake have appeared immediately before the program on some stations, Isakoff said CBN has turned down requests by Basic Organics and GNC to advertise on "The 700 Club."
Robertson's shake recipe is still available on the CBN Web site. Alongside it is this advice: "You can purchase health supplements and shake products from high quality health food stores, like GNC."
The commercialization of Robertson's shake drew fire from the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based religious media watchdog organization. Trinity has been critical of past Robertson business ventures, such as his African gold and diamond mines and Kalo-Vita, a multilevel marketing company that sold vitamins and cosmetics.
Ole Anthony, Trinity's president, said Robertson improperly used his tax-exempt, nonprofit ministry to create a market for his shake.
"It wouldn't exist unless it was promoted on the donor-paid-for airtime," he said.