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State questions claims of evangelist's company

Florida's attorney general is investigating allegations a marketing company owned by television evangelist Pat Robertson deceptively recruited distributors with inflated promises of profits.

The probe, prompted by information uncovered by the ABC news magazine Prime Time Live is focused on KaloVita, a Virginia-based multilevel marketing firm that sells vitamins, skin creams and other personal care products.

Assistant Attorney General Les Garringer said Friday ABC provided information about one out-of-state distributor who claimed in a letter to other potential distributors that he earned $15,800 in one month and that his ultimate goal was a seven-figure annual income.

Garringer said such claims, if made in Florida, would violate the state's deceptive and unfair trade practices law.

"I just don't believe the average person can make that kind of money," he said. "It needs to be demonstrated to me."

ABC came to Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth's office because it had investigated KaloVita's predecessor company, American Benefits Plus, in 1992.

Literature for that firm, which marketed a "passport" book of coupons offering discounts on everything from generic drugs to vacation condominiums, forecast earnings of at least $3,600 a month and might have implied membership would solve "family financial problems."

State investigators said the pitch was deceptive. But the company, in addition to changing its product line, changed policies to prohibit distributors from making claims about income potential and dismissed one Florida distributor who violated the policy.

Garringer said the compensation plans for American Benefits Plus and KaloVita are almost identical, providing increased commissions based on increased sales volume.

On his television show Friday, Robertson pointed out that the attorney general's office was investigating the matter despite the fact that there have been no consumer complaints filed against KaloVita representatives in Florida.

Joe Bizzaro, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, stressed Saturday the investigation involves the single letter written by one distributor.

"The company is being very cooperative and we expect to have the situation resolved very quickly," he said.

Nelson Rogers, chief operating officer at KaloVita, said Friday the letter uncovered by ABC included a disclaimer indicating $15,800 a month is not the earnings of a typical distributor and that financial success is "strictly dependent on individual effort."

"They're right, that's not the average," he said of the attorney general's concerns. "And that's what was in the disclaimer."

Still, Rogers said the letter amounted to "puffery," and that KaloVita does not condone it. The distributor has been told to refrain from making claims about income potential in the future, he said.

Robertson and his $237-million-a-year Christian ministry, the Christian Broadcasting Network, have come under attack in the national media in recent weeks for bankrolling his business ventures with donations. But Robertson's aides deny the charge. And the Internal Revenue Service, which has audited the network for years, has never accused Robertson of a crime.