The Al Parish story is just too good to be true. What novelist would have had the audacity to create this local Bubba-turned-economics professor-turned-financial guru who now stands accused of defrauding hundreds of investors out of tens of millions of dollars?
The story starts with Charleston Southern University, the little Jesus college in Charleston County, where Parish taught and headed up the Center for Economic Forecasting (whose webpage is currently down). CSU gave Parish a front and a measure of respectability (for which they are now being sued by some of Parish's victims). In return, Parish put CSU on the map as the home of this oracle and investment wizard who could beat the best Wall Street mutual funds with his "investment pools" and "proprietary formulas."
As a Baptist college, CSU is very interested in preserving its image. For that reason, it requires its faculty and staff to sign a code of personal conduct, according to The Post and Courier. I readily admit that I have not seen a copy of said code (though I would love to), but that will not stop me from speculating freely about its contents. With that said, I would bet my shoes that the code has strict proscriptions on sexual activity and substances that may be ingested for recreational and entertainment purposes. And I would bet my socks that it said nothing about one's economic behavior — whether one was running a giant scam to defraud his friends and colleagues out of their savings, or investing in child-slave factories in Southern Asia.
The fact is, Parish's investors didn't know what their guru was doing with their money. Parish was notoriously secretive about the workings of his investment schemes and how he was able to promise returns of 30 percent and more. And the investors were happy not to know — as long as the money was rolling in.
One of those investors was CSU, which had $10.6 million — or a third of its endowment — invested with Parish. Who was responsible for doing the due diligence on Parish and his investments? Why didn't they know that he was not licensed with the Securities Exchange Commission to trade in securities for other people? Reading the accounts in the P&C, it was fun to watch the CSU president and the chairman of the board toss that hot potato back and forth.
The real victims of this tragedy at CSU are the students, more than 600 of whom may have lost their scholarship money in this debacle. Let us hope that this blue-collar university is chastened and not crippled by this disaster.
Two other smug institutions which have egg on their faces in the wake of the Al Parish imbroglio are the Post and Courier and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Parish frequently addressed gatherings of the Chamber with his economic forecasts and musings. Starting in January, he had graced the Business section of the P&C each week with the same.
The Metro Chamber has had nothing to say about its erstwhile sage. While the P&C has done an excellent job in covering the Parish affair (seven front-page stories and counting) the Wise Ones who deliberate in the editorial suite have been as silent as a stone. They who are always eager to point the finger of shame and guilt at others — especially Democratic others — have not yet found the words to express their opprobrium after a week of deepening scandal.
What is the take-home lesson from the Al Parish story?
Ultimately, of course, people are victims of con artists because they are greedy. They think they have found the secret to easy wealth and they are more than happy to follow their avarice to their own undoing. But there is something about outrageous and outlandish people that captures a sucker's imagination — and Parish was certainly outrageous in his cartoon-print jackets, his custom-made sweatpants, his Jaguar automobile with jaguar spots painted on the top.
He brings to mind Glenn Turner, the Florence County sharecropper's son and high-school dropout who built a $100 million multilevel cosmetics marketing empire before it collapsed in scandal, litigation, and a stretch in prison. And there's Jimmy Swaggart, the salvation preacher and fornicator who continues to shake down his gullible followers for their paychecks.
But more than these, there are the hundreds of politicians who have gulled generations of Southerners out of their votes, always with wild promises to preserve segregation, to protect decent folk from the "homosexual agenda." And people vote for them because they want to believe there is a simple solution to their problems. They want to think that if they can just keep some group in its place, then somehow the world will be right. But it's just another con. The only thing that stays in its place is the South.