COLUMBIA — Former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Earle Morris, a longtime politician who served prison time for securities fraud in one of the state’s largest bankruptcies, died Friday morning. He was 82.
Carol Morris said her husband had suffered from prostate cancer.
Morris, who served in both in the House and Senate of the state Legislature, was elected lieutenant governor in 1971. Five years later, he became the state’s comptroller general, holding that office until 1999.
Morris was a lifelong Democrat, staying with the party long after many became Republicans. His public service made him a beloved figure in the northwestern part of the state and a major highway in Pickens County was named for him.
But sentiment concerning Morris changed in 2003, when the company he chaired, Carolina Investors, failed, costing 8,000 investors about $275 million. For decades, the company cranked out returns of 8.5 percent in the good years by making loans to people with poor credit, always making sure those folks had enough collateral.
But by the late 1990s, the company was taken over by HomeGold, which used the money to make high-risk mortgage loans to people who didn’t have the collateral to pay for them. It wasn’t long before the operation came tumbling down, evaporating college funds and thrusting retirees into poverty.
Morris was among a handful of executives tried for his role in the collapse. Sentenced to nearly four years in prison after he was convicted of 22 counts of securities fraud, Morris was released last March because of his health.
Columbia attorney Joel Collins, Morris’ longtime friend and attorney, said he admired Morris’ strength.
“He was the quintessential guy who took whatever circumstances that life threw at him and dealt with them,” Collins said. “I learned from him. I learned how to face things.”