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Consumers' friend 'defrauded millions'

Washington - Irwin "Sonny" Bloch is among America's most popular and durable financial talk radio hosts. It now transpires, if a slew of charges from federal prosecutors is upheld, that he may be one of the most dishonest, writes Rupert Cornwell. He is accused of using his nationally syndicated programme to defraud listeners out of more than $20m (pounds 12.5m).

According to a 35-count criminal indictment, and a separate civil suit brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the self-styled "consumer advocate" star of the Sonny Bloch Show went on the air to tout lucrative investment opportunities in wireless cable systems and radio stations.

But, it is alleged, most of the money raised went to Mr Bloch and four others involved in the scam. Between 1993 and 1995, listeners subscribed to $17m of "virtually worthless" cable ventures, while Mr Bloch used almost $4m raised by the sale of "memberships" in three radio stations in Florida and Connecticut to buy property and meet personal expenses.

Last night his partners in the scheme were all under arrest. Mr Bloch however, continues to broadcast his show from the Dominican Republic, where he has been living for the last six months. He is now being treated as a fugitive by the federal authorities, although his lawyer promised Mr Bloch would return to answer the charges against him.

His fall from grace has barely affected his ratings. Carried by more than 100 stations across the country, the show has around 1.5 million listeners six days a week. For all the publicity surrounding the affair, only one station - New York's WOR - has dropped the programme.