A Strongman Scorned

A local bodybuilder sues Pat Robertson over a weight-loss shake

Phil Busch is a giant of a man, with a withering glare that he uses liberally whenever the conversation turns to televangelist Pat Robertson. "Me and Robertson are coming in a head-on crash," the 6-foot-4-inch, 42-year-old Addison bodybuilder declares. Fortunately for 76-year-old Robertson, the collision is metaphorical, a legal clash that has become the central focus of Busch's life. "Look in my eyes," Busch says. "This ain't no goddamn game. He wants to come after me? Bring it fuckin' on."

Busch is convinced Robertson used him as part of a moneymaking scheme. In August 2005, Busch filed suit against Robertson in Dallas. The case has been moved to federal court in Virginia, where Robertson has filed a countersuit. But Busch says Robertson's countermeasures won't stop there. "Every night I think someone is going to come and kill me and my family," Busch says, noting that Robertson has called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. "He's crazy enough to threaten world leaders. This is an unstable man."

The feeling appears to be mutual. Louis Isakoff, attorney for Robertson's nonprofit Christian Broadcasting Network, calls Busch's suit "preposterous." Robertson and CBN were among five defendants named in Busch's suit. In May, Busch filed a second suit against Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, for using his image, and a third against John Edwards, a Dallas businessman, for breach of contract. "I'm told the allegations [against Edwards] are virtually identical to ours," Isakoff says. "It just looks this guy's modus operandi is to put himself into a position where he can sue somebody."

Phil Busch, before (inset) and after
Phil Busch, before (inset) and after

At the center of the controversy is Robertson's formula for a weight-loss shake. The formula is distributed free through The 700 Club, CBN's flagship talk show. Using the shake, Busch's weight dropped from more than 400 to 212 pounds in 15 months. In the fall of 2004, Busch entered two drug-free bodybuilding competitions, Mr. Natural Olympia and Mr. Natural Universe, and scored two top-10 finishes.

When Busch shared his story with The 700 Club, the show's producers decided to use Busch's dramatic before-and-after photos to kick off the 2005 edition of "Pat's Weight Loss Challenge." Viewers were encouraged to use the shake and exercise over a 12-week period. More than a million asked for the shake recipe, which Robertson provided to CBN free of charge.

The formula had already proved so popular that in 2004 Robertson licensed it to Basic Organics, an Ohio fitness product company. The powder was dubbed "Pat's Diet Shake" and initially offered at a handful of General Nutrition Center stores. Each $22 sale earns Robertson a commission in his incarnation as head of Robertson Asset Management. Of course, as president and CEO of nonprofit CBN, Robertson couldn't mention his commercial product on The 700 Club.

What he could do, however, was have professional bodybuilder David Hawk, a consultant to Basic Organics and GNC, appear on the show to demonstrate exercises and endorse "Pat's Weight Loss Challenge." Visitors to Hawk's Web site would then see a huge ad for "Pat's Diet Shake" available at GNC. The CBN Web site itself steered Challenge participants to GNC for unspecified "health supplements."

Isakoff sees nothing wrong with the relationship. "You can buy the individual ingredients, and we'll give you the formula for free, or if you know about it and if you want to get it you can go to the store and buy the prepackaged shake--but it's two different products," Isakoff insists. He notes that CBN carefully weighs any threat to the company's tax-exempt status.

Such caution is understandable given that CBN's status was temporarily revoked in the 1980s for Robertson's political activities. He narrowly escaped prosecution in the 1990s for using his "Operation Blessing" planes and funds to exploit diamond-mining concessions obtained from Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In 2003 Robertson gave lavish on-air love to Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, a key partner in Robertson's massive gold-mining operation there.

When Busch found out about Robertson's GNC venture after furnishing his pictures to CBN, he began to wonder if he might be entitled to a piece of the action. That thought became a conviction when Busch saw an online ad for the commercial product that featured his name and story. Instead, David Hawk was twice invited to CBN to talk about the Weight Loss Challenge. Busch realized that he was not to be Robertson's muscleman.

Not long before Busch's impressive pictures helped kick off the Weight Loss Challenge, GNC began selling "Pat's Diet Shake" nationwide. "I was the cherry on their sundae and didn't even know it," Busch says bitterly.

Busch decided to fight back on three fronts. He contacted reporters. He engaged a lawyer, Jim Davis of Dallas firm Davis & Munck. And he contacted CBN, asking to appear in person. Eventually, he was invited to the July 13, 2005, broadcast. In the green room that day, a handler asked Busch if he still used the shake. Sure, he replied, I just go pick it up at GNC. Busch chuckles as he recalls the shocked look on the woman's face. "When they found out that I knew, all kinds of red flags started going off," he says.

Busch was instructed not to even mention the retail shake mix, but once onstage he extolled its virtues. Robertson's smile in response looked an awful lot like a wince, the pain of a wounded tax-exempt status. On August 19, Davis notified Robertson of Busch's intention to sue.

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