S.C. economist pleads guilty of swindling investors

CHARLESTON -- After a six-month period where he claimed amnesia and then denied his guilt, Al Parish changed his mind Friday and admitted in court that he swindled admirers, friends and his employer out of an estimated $90 million.

The former flamboyant Charleston Southern University economist agreed to a plea deal on two fraud charges and lying to investigators that reduced his potential maximum prison time from a couple of centuries to a few decades.

But he gave no explanation.

During a short hearing in a federal courtroom in Charleston, Parish uttered just one sentence "I'm changing my plea on three charges from not guilty to guilty" and otherwise gave a few one-word replies to questions from a judge.

"There's not going to be a happy ending," said David Dantzler, an attorney representing the receiver now in charge of Parish's assets.

Parish will be sentenced early next year.

As for his 500-plus investors, they will likely receive less than 20 cents for each dollar lost, Dantzler said.

About $2.5 million has already been recovered. Dantzler hopes to recoup another $2.5 million from some unsold assets. He was not sure how much money will be gained from selling Parish's four homes.

As of now, Dantzler said shoddy paperwork and scattered assets make it difficult to give a precise estimate on how much will eventually be recovered.

Part of the problem, Dantzler said, is investigators are still sorting out what happened to all the money invested, up to $112 million, that Parish raised.

So far, about $1 million has been spent on just collecting what records exist, tracking down what money could be recouped and storing and appraising Parish's possessions that have been auctioned.

Some funds were paid to investors over time, though authorities said he used money collected from others to do so.

Parish spent much of the money on homes, hundreds of gnomes, guitars belonging to rocks stars, diamond-encrusted pens and a purple Jaguar with a leopard-print roof.

As part of his client's guilty plea, attorney Andy Savage said after the hearing Parish agreed to work with investigators sorting through his financial records. The hope, Savage said, is that Parish's help will be considered by the judge at sentencing.

The maximum jail time for the three charges to which Parish pleaded guilty is 45 years effectively a life sentence for the 50-year-old. The terms of his bail have not changed so Parish will remain out of jail but confined to his home until sentencing.

He was facing more than 200 years with the eight additional fraud charges that prosecutors dropped as part of the plea agreement.

Parish changed his plea to guilty, Savage said, because his client wanted to do what he could to try making amends for what he did to the investors.

Still, he offered no reason why his client stole the money in the first place.

Sitting in the Charleston courtroom Friday, Parish hardly looked like the "Economan" character he portrayed at one time on his Web site.

Dressed in a conservative dark gray suit, Parish spent the moments before pleading folding his hands, sitting silent and looking like he was deep in thought, while people around him discussed Thursday's USC football win over Kentucky.

His meteoric fall as the authoritative voice of South Carolina's coastal economics was about to hit bottom.

His brother, Johnny Parish the only family member in court Friday said after the hearing his relatives were relieved.

The guilty plea, he said, "Gives a little bit of a picture into the future."

Reach Werner at (803) 771-8509