A former economist pleaded guilty Friday for his role in swindling investors out of an estimated $90 million, which authorities said he used to purchase a half-dozen homes, swanky cars and jewel-encrusted pens.
Al Parish, 50, admitted to two counts of fraud and lying to investigators. He faces up to 45 years in prison.
Parish was known for his flashy clothes and a Web site that depicted him in a superhero costume, a large "E" for "Economan" emblazoned on his chest. But prosecutors say he defrauded about 500 people, and while the exact amount of losses was still being calculated, investors reported losing a total of $90 million.
Appearing before U.S. District Judge David Norton on Friday in a conservative charcoal suit and maroon tie, Parish was asked if he knew why he was at the hearing. He had originally faced 11 charges.
"I’m changing my plea on three of the charges, from not guilty to guilty," he told the judge.
Parish claimed he had amnesia when authorities announced their investigation in April.
Authorities said Parish was not registered with the state or with the Securities and Exchange Commission to deal in securities, and that he promised investors returns well beyond Wall Street’s wildest ambitions. He was fired from his job as economics professor at Charleston Southern University when the scandal broke.
Parish did not speak to reporters after the hearing. Parish attorney Andy Savage said his client was worried about serving time, and that a maximum sentence would essentially mean life in prison.
"The plea represents the truth and Al has always been interested in getting this behind him," Savage said. "Prison time is inevitable in this case."
In July, a court-ordered auction of Parish’s estate brought in about $2.35 million, only a fraction of the money that Parish is said to have lost.
The items sold included more than 100 high-end watches and a Fender Stratocaster guitar said to have been played by Jimi Hendrix on his record "Foxy Lady." There were also gnome statues by sculptor Tom Clark and cases of hot sauce bearing the label Al Parish Bottle of Death.
While other items and real estate remain to be sold, investigators said that in the end, they expect to recover less than 10 percent of the missing money. At least $1 million has already gone to pay for the search and sale of the estate by a team of attorneys, accountants and appraisers.
Outside the courthouse, retired antiques dealer Carolyn Hooffstetter, 78, said she lost her $300,000 in life savings by investing with Parish.
"I always asked his opinion and I was very confident that what he was saying was the truth," she said. "I am here to make sure they make him pay for what he has done."
Parish will be sentenced after probation officers complete a sentencing report for the judge. No sentencing date was set.
At a hearing in May, a psychiatrist testified that Parish suffered amnesia resulting from extreme stress, but she also said Parish’s memory improved after he learned amnesia was not a defense to the criminal charges.
Parish was known in Charleston to cut a flashy figure in his colorful suits and offered investment tips at speaking engagements. He offered regular economic forecasts for the Charleston Area Metro Chamber of Commerce and wrote periodic columns for The Post and Courier.
Last November, Parish purchased a diamond-studded fountain pen worth $170,000. He put it on display at a Charleston store along with others from his $1.2 million pen collection.