The day before receiving his prison sentence, economist Al Parish sat down with Post and Courier reporters Kyle Stock and Schuyler Kropf to discuss his massive fraud for the first time since the government charged him 14 months ago. Parish said that he is not a typical con-man. He was just arrogant and stressed. His bookkeeping was terrible and his investment decisions were worse. A math whiz with no background in investing, Parish said he wished that he never touched a cent on behalf of others. Did he realize that he was breaking the law? He doesn't remember.
The following is the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: We were thinking you could make an opening statement and then we'd follow up with questions.
A: The big concern I have out of all of this is the investors' loss, which since I became aware of everything since my collapse in 2007, I've tried to channel the remorse and sorrow into trying to help get as much money back to the investors as possible. One way was helping the receiver locate and catalogue all of the assets. The other was to help him go through all of the claims that people put in and correct them. It's one thing to say you're sorry; it's another to actually try to turn that into something beneficial.
I hope they come to realize that this was not the typical kind of fraud where somebody takes their money and squanders it on a lifestyle. The latest number that's been thrown around is $79 million; it's actually closer to $66 million now, after we helped go through the claims. There's supposedly been 500 or 600 victims. That's not true. It's closer to half that, because many investors filed multiple claims. And out of 478 claims, 102 of them were overstated and 30 of them were actually no loss at all.
Q: What was special about you, that you thought or you believed that you could take this money and turn it into a profit?
A: I thought that I had developed a mathematical model that would allow me to trade stocks and futures profitably. And it did for awhile, but after 2001, it started falling apart and I moved the money to what I'd been calling hard assets and into private equity, private companies, thinking I could earn a higher return.
You buy a Swiss watch, for example, from a broker. The broker says "My cost was $50,000, you can get it for $55,000. And we can double our money, because the true value of the watch is $200,000." I thought, "OK, we can make a 40 percent return on this investment." And sometimes we did. We generated roughly $13 million in trading profits. But the problem was ... I was paying a huge markup and it wasn't worth double. So when the receiver went to liquidate these assets, they were worth far less than what I thought they were worth and even than what we paid for them.
Q: Did you think that was naive? Why did you think this was some sort of miracle investment?
A: I didn't think it was a miracle. I just thought that it sounded like a good idea. Yes, it was naive to trust these people that I was working with. I defrauded my investors; it turns out I was defrauded as well.
Of the $66 million, the money that came to me was $7.7 million, that includes a management fee and operating the business. The rest of that money actually went into investments. It wasn't stolen; it wasn't hidden somewhere. It was actually invested.
Q: What was life like for you when you were riding high?
A: It was certainly a mental high. There's no doubt about that. My huge mistake in all this was what I term arrogance - thinking I could do everything. I was doing a minimum of three full-time jobs. I was teaching at Charleston Southern and doing all the stuff that comes with that. I was running the Center for Economic Forecasting there ... which called for 100 speeches a year. ...Then I was running Parish Economics - very badly. ... And I was doing economic consulting work. In March of 2007, the stress became too much.
There's also the impression that this was all some kind of legal fakery. Which, anybody that was around at that time know wasn't the case. ...I didn't know who I was. Didn't know where I was. Didn't know my family. Nothing. ... I don't think people - unless they've been through something like that - understand how sheerly terrifying that is. ... You feel like you've awaked on a different planet. It's literally the stuff of science fiction.
Q: When did things start to come back?
A: It took at least a week for anything to become familiar. I came out here (to Hollywood) after I was released from the hospital and I would have sworn on the Bible or on a lie detector that I'd never been here before - where I grew up.
... I know that I don't remember everything even now. ... For at least several months, it felt like I was sitting in an audience watching a play - a bad one. ... I will probably never get back to 100 (percent memory).
Q: Do you comprehend going to prison?
A: Yeah, I do. I'm hoping that the judge takes into account that this was not the conventional fraud where someone takes the money with the intention of hiding it or using it on themselves. The money was taken and invested - in bad investments, as it turns out, by and large. It wasn't the idea that "I'm going to take all these people's money and abscond with it." It was "I'm going to take this money and invest it in hopes that it will bring a higher return." And it didn't. The fraud was putting that money in an investment that was different than what the investor thought it was.
In other words, someone said "I want you to put my money in bonds." And I would put it in a hard asset or a private company and report that I had put it in bonds.
Q: Do you remember making up fictitous statements, where the sum you had was X and you told the investor they had Y?
A: Yes, I remember making statements like that that reported values higher than what they were. Those values weren't made up out of the clear, blue sky. They were values that I thought we could eventually get for them, based on what I had been told, what I had looked up. ... The problem is that a lot of times you can't legitimately get those values unless you are prepared to wait an awful long time.
Q: What drove you to do that, to put down a falsehood?
A: I wish I could answer that question. I think basically it was arrogance.
Q: Was there a time when you believed your own PR, that you were this muscle-bound "Economan"?
A:The "Economan" thing was something a class made up. That wasn't something I came up with. But yeah, there was a time that I believed the investments I was doing were just fine. Yeah, they weren't all where they were supposed to be, but the valuations were just fine. ...And we were actually making money as we went. Over that period, we made $13 million.
Q: Was there a point at which you thought "I'm upside-down on this; I might be in real trouble here"?
A: Certainly I realized that after going through all this stuff with the receiver. Whether I realized that before, I honestly don't remember. I don't know. Most of the first three months of 2007 are still gone (from my memory). Dr. Baker said there's a mental line that a person can't cross in the amount of stuff you're doing. I not only crossed it; I pole-vaulted over it in early 2007. I'm not blaming them, but all of this kind of stuff was expected at Charleston Southern.
There's an impression out there that I went around giving speeches, enticing people to invest. That's just not true. The speeches I gave were about local or national economic conditions. ...I never cold-called anyone, ever.
Q: What was your fee?
A: The fee was 1 percent of assets under management. That was to include the cost of operating the business.
All of this mess - this disaster I've caused - the thing that bothers me most is that my investors all think that I took all of their money and spent it on myself. And that's just not true.
Q: But there was an image that probably helped contribute to their thoughts of you as a villain. You had a flashy kind of personality, so you played the part.
A: Absolutely, I don't deny that. The houses, for example, were paid for with mortgage loans. They weren't paid for with investor money. ... In addition to the college professor salary, I was doing a lot of economic consulting. ... So we had a good income coming in - a legitimate source of income. The cars, I don't remember any of them.
Q: Did you get a chance or want to reach out to any of the victims in the last few months?
A: Oh yes. I have wanted to do that since I first understood what was going on.
Q: Were you ever afraid in the last few months that an investor might be angry enough to take action against you?
A: I wasn't. ... I've run into three people since then, just either at the doctor or at the grocery store. ... One of them was very upset and I talked to her for a while. She's still obviously upset. I don't think she's as angry. In other words, I hope I made her realize this was not "I stole all your money." I think she realized it was badly invested and fraudulently reported, which doesn't change the reality as far as she is concerned but it changes the atmosphere.
Q: Did you know you had crossed over to something criminal?
A: No, because I didn't know the law.
Q: Did you think you could recover after a short period of losses?
A: I don't know if I realized there was a problem before everything happened or not, I don't remember. But the numbers I was reporting to people I thought were legitimate ... If you look at the statements I reported, it says "realized profit" and then "unrealized." That "unrealized" is exactly what it is, it's not money we've made yet. It's based on "here's what I think the market value is." So I thought those numbers were correct. The fraud was in saying you've got bonds when in fact, you don't ... I just don't remember if I realized these numbers are not adding up to what they should.
Q: During the winter of 2006-07, were you worried about everything collapsing after Charleston Southern University asked for some of its investment back?
A: I don't think so. There was a lot of money flowing in and out all of the time. From the records I've looked at, we were sending out on a routine basis, about $120,000 a month to investors that had normal monthly withdrawals. And we had no problem doing that, even through March.
Q: Did you really think there was an investable market in some of the oddities you were buying, like the gnomes you had?
A: The gnomes were not part of Parish Economics. I've had those for decades, and they aren't expensive. There is a market in them, but it's very limited ... Some of those pieces should have sold for thousands.
(Parish was referring to the auction of his possessions and art to help pay back investors. Some of the gnomes went as bulk purchases in which their price was about $7 each.)
Q: What about investing in expensive Swiss watches?
A: You bet. That's how some companies survive ... Numerous brokers buy and sell Swiss watches. Mont Blanc pens? There's a ready market for those. Animation art? Same idea. I legitimately thought these were things I could buy that will generate profits of up to 40 percent a year.
Q: Do you have any anger toward these brokers that sold you those items, and as you say, at an inflated price?
A: Yeah. Sure. I feel the same way towards them that my investors feel towards me.
Q: Did you ever think that "If I could buy something for $50,000 and turn around and sell it for $200,000, then why aren't they selling it for $200,000?"
A: The idea was buy it for $50,000 and sell it for $70,000 ... I may have to wait a few months to get $70,000; time value.
It was naive, it was absolutely (naive). I didn't do, in the language of the investment field, the due diligence I should have.
Q: How has your faith played in this?
A: In a very negative way. I was brought up Episcopalian in a very Christian household too. My wife and I attend Lutheran church and we're bring up our kids that way. Charleston Southern is Baptist. If I could turn back time, I would never have gotten involved in managing people's money. That's one of the things I discovered, for lack of a better description, with my psychiatrist, is I never wanted to say no to anybody. So I got into this with good intentions but disastrous consequences.
Q: What made Al Parish so special that he thought he could beat Wall Street?
A: Some sense of ego, is the best I can answer that.
Q: Do you think you were smarter or better than the experts? Where did this come from?
A: I honestly don't know. I'm very good at mathematics and I'm very good at economics. I have never had a course in investments. I have never had a course in finance. I've taught graduate level courses in both. I went and looked back at my transcripts and I've never had courses in either.
Q: But you've been called on as an expert in both?
A: That's kind of interesting, isn't it?
Finance is one thing. That is math and economics. That's not hard to learn if you have a good math background. But investments is different, it involves psychology. Teaching a course in investments is one thing. Managing money for someone is something else ... The teaching part I did pretty well but the latter was disastrous. I guess it was arrogance to think I could do that, that I thought I'd found a way to generate these returns for these people.
Q: From 2002-06, the stock market did pretty well. Was there ever a point when you were going with these 'hard asset' pools that you thought about getting back into equities and beyond?
A: Probably not, because I thought I was doing better.
Q: You've talked about a couple investors you've bumped into since you were released on bond. What happened?
A: One of them, when I saw him I remembered him. He said "Hi, how are you doing?" And he had lost, I think his claim was a bit over $100,000. I apologized to him and he says "Oh, I need the tax write off." He didn't care. The third, these folks were very angry. They got very angry in front of my five-year-old twins, which I didn't, frankly, think said a whole lot for them. But all I could do then is apologize to them. Then I found out they had filed a claim for $400,000 and they had actually made $200,000. So they hadn't lost anything at all.
Q: How many people made money over the years?
A: Over 100.
Q: What are your thoughts about prison?
A: The prosecution has asked for 30 years. Andy (Savage, his lawyer) says that's just publicity, that Ken Lay didn't get that from Enron; that it's absurd. I hope he's right. But in a sense it doesn't matter. With my health conditions the difference between 15 and 30 is irrelevant.
Q: Do you expect to die in prison?
A: I hope not. I expect to probably be dead in 10 years because my father, grandfather and great-grandfather all died from heart disease in their 50s. The health care consultant took my health records before the latest heart blockage last week and took it to seven different insurance companies. They all say I have an average life span of, I think it's 12 years.
Q: Are you afraid of the prison experience?
A: No, because I'm not looking at a high-security type facility. I'm looking at something minimum or low security where you don't even have cells, you have dormitories, it's like a college dorm almost ... The biggest fear I have is being separated from the kids ... That's by far my biggest emotional or psychcological fear.
Q: How did you meet Dr. Kalpana Patel, your largest single investor with as much as $13 million turned over to you?
A: I believe she was introduced to me by a former investor.
Q: Did you ever think you might be over the legal line with what you were doing and running afoul of the law?
A: Not then but I sure should of. I should have hired an attorney and an accountant. That's what (his doctor) was saying, he said that I was so overloaded it's a wonder I lasted this long trying to do all of that myself.
Q: Have you had any contact with Wayne Cassaday?
Q: Do you think you are being treated fairly?
A: Ask me tomorrow (laughs). Honestly, in the press, no I don't. ... Part of that is my fault because (his lawyer) wouldn't let me talk to you guys even though I wanted to on the get go ... The biggest thing that I think is unfair is that the investors and the public, and I really don't care what the public thinks, it's the investors that matter, think that I took that $66 million and spent it on house and cars and that it's all gone. And in fact they will get back between one-fifth and one-quarter of it back. I'm not suggesting that's good; it's horrible, it's absolutely horrible. But it's better than zero. It's not all gone. But it didn't go into my pocket, it did go into investments, except for $7.7 million.
Q: Your lawyer has said your accounting was not perfect, was that part of the problem?
A: Yeah. Sure it was. My accounting was horrible. Part of it was fraudulent; I was telling people money was one place when it was another. I didn't do what I should have done. I should have hired someone to say "Here's what you need to do."
Q: What's the best advice that you've gotten through all of this?
A: Dr. Baker, the psychiatrist, said I have to get more in touch with stress and feelings. During our sessions, he said at one point that I make Mr. Spock look emotional. Not that I don't have emotions, just that I'm awfully good at suppressing them and that that was part of the problem that allowed me to do things that I normally wouldn't in terms of the fraud.
Q: You were detached from it?
Q: Did anyone ever say "You better slow down"?
A: Um hm. And I would for a little while. ...I had a heart attack in 1997 and I slowed down after that. But in 2001, when 9/11 hit - I was giving six and seven speeches a day after that.
Q: In the past few months, what have you been doing?
A: Spending time with the family, but spending hundreds of hours with the receiver. A two-hour meeting turned into nine. I was told, at least, that I saved the investors hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees. ... We had one investor that recorded that they had lost this amount of money and they forgot (I'm being facetious), forgot that I had paid their house off.
Q: What would you say to the investors?
A: If I could turn back time, I would; and I never would have gotten involved in all this. And that I've done my best to get back as much money to them, in the most equitable fashion possible, by working with the receivor. And that I hope to have the opportunity to make further restitutions.
Q: At what point did your inner voice tell you "I'm breaking the law, but I'm going to go ahead and do this anyway"?
A: Certainly after all of this. I don't know if or when before that; I just don't remember. I know some people will think that's not an honest answer, but it is.