Former politician Earle Morris dies at 82

Former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Earle Morris

MARY ANN CHASTAIN

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 prostate cancer.

Morris, who served in both in the state House and Senate, 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.

Morris was a director at Carolina Investors when the company was founded in 1963 and helped run the investment firm for decades, as it cranked out returns of 8.5 percent by making loans to people with poor credit, always making sure those folks had enough collateral. The company made loans for things such as buying cemetery plots and gave out solid returns for decades to people ranging from mill workers to professionals in the Upstate.

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. More than 8,000 investors lost about $275 million when the companies failed in 2003.

Prosecutors said Morris knew the companies were in danger of going under, but lied to investors to keep their money.

Morris said the new owners deceived him, too, with his lawyers pointing out Morris lost a considerable amount of money in the bankruptcy.

"Earle grieved about it," longtime friend and attorney Joel Collins said. "He lost money himself. But he was the guy left holding the bag. He was the guy that had to do the speaking for Carolina Investors when they shut the doors. Nobody else could be found."

Morris was convicted in 2004 of 22 counts of securities fraud. He apologized to investors as he was sentenced to nearly four years in prison. "My remorse will be with me until my last day. I don't know that I can make up for it. If I could, I would. All I can say is that I'm sorry," Morris said then.

Collins said he admired Morris' emotional strength. Morris was released from prison last March because of his health.