Riddle me this, who is the top intelligence agent in Washington? Answer: Matthew Lesko (“The Question Mark Guy” is also acceptable).
Once a ubiquitous television presence in infomercials touting his tomes on how to get “FREE MONEY FROM THE GOVERNMENT,” Lesko, who turns 80 today, has spent the past half-century becoming America’s number one trader in government information. Attired in suits festooned with question marks, there is nothing clandestine, covert, or confidential about the man or the information he sells. Nor is any of it original. Just as he raided Frank Gorshin’s wardrobe, Lesko raided government information manuals to produce his best-selling reference books. He has “authored” over 100 such books, each one containing regurgitated information on how to obtain stipends, grants, services, loans, and other forms of government assistance.
That does not mean the information Lesko sells lacks value, even if it can be obtained elsewhere for free. The 3.5 million books Lesko has sold, not to mention the tapes, CDs, and DVDs, contain the kind of government information that is most relevant to the average person. But Lesko’s true value to society is what his business model says about the size and scope of the federal government.
When Lesko’s book “Information USA” (1983) was on the New York Times Best Seller List, the federal budget had yet to reach $1 trillion. Today, the federal deficit alone hit $1.1 trillion for just the first half of this fiscal year. John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” has been completely eclipsed by Lesko’s “FREE MONEY” ethos. Of course, this is not Lesko’s doing. He merely reveals that the federal government has a program for everything under the sun. Want to teach English to transgender youths in Pakistan? The Biden Administration is now offering up to $75,000 to facilitate that.
A consumer protection agency once criticized Lesko’s ads for glossing over the number of hoops applicants may have to jump through to get dollars out of D.C. But the level of sophistication required of the recipients is of no solace to taxpayers who foot the bill for these programs. When it comes to broader lessons of fiscal policy, what matters is that these programs exist. And Lesko provides proof positive that they do.
Unlike much of the formal intelligence community, Lesko is neither dishonest nor corrupt. He freely admits that the federal government is so large that it is practically impossible to cut spending too much. There will never be a day when spending cuts put Lesko out of business. His line of work is impervious to shifting political winds. This month the spending interests in Washington are up in arms because the House of Representatives passed a bill that would reduce discretionary spending levels in Fiscal Year 2024 to what they were way back in . . . Fiscal Year 2022.
Initially, Lesko’s clientele was mostly Fortune 500 businesses, but his innate populism left him dissatisfied with serving the interests of the wealthy, who are the prime beneficiaries of government largesse. This was especially true during the pandemic when the federal government spent trillions above and beyond the trillions it normally spends each year. The modest means-tested stimulus checks were just a small fraction of the overall COVID-related spending, most of which was gobbled up by special interests and at least $600 billion of which was stolen by criminals.
The fraud was as brazen as a Lesko infomercial. Eighty billion dollars were stolen from the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”). More than one in five unemployment benefit payments were made improperly to the tune of $191 billion. The Small Business Administration fears it was bilked out of $400 billion in fraudulent emergency loans. Even Chicago gang members used PPP funds to buy guns.
Much of the fraud was enabled by the lax oversight of third-party lenders charged with administering PPP loans. One such lender borrowed a page from Lesko and advertised PPP loans as “$100 billion dollars of free money.”
Lesko’s modus operandi has changed as the Information Age has evolved. No longer producing reference books or infomercials, Lesko maintains a very active YouTube channel where you can learn things like how the government will give you $35,000 for being a COVID fraud bounty hunter.
Riddle me this, why did the government spend $6 trillion on COVID relief when it could have simply suspended all federal income taxes for two years for a greater stimulative effect? Answer: Because we are all Leskovians now.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.
In Batman the Riddler always wore outfit with Question Marks on it