A trusted and well-known economics professor at a Baptist university in South Carolina stands accused of swindling an estimated 300 individuals and companies out of $134 million in an investment scheme.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday filed suit against Albert E. “Al” Parish of Summerville, S.C., and two companies he started on five counts of civil fraud.

Charleston Southern University, a 3,000-student institution affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, filed a separate complaint against Parish, with whom trustees invested $10.66 million of the school’s total $71 million assets over the last five years.

“While this situation will require budget adjustments,” the university said in a press release, “Charleston Southern has operated in the black for 22 consecutive years and plans to continue to do so. The Charleston Southern family continues to pray for everyone impacted by this unfortunate situation. We remain committed to our mission of academic excellence in a Christian environment.”

According to the federal government, Parish, 49, who has taught at Charleston Southern since 1990, started investing other people’s money in 1986. He reported earnings of between 32 percent and 42 percent a year in pooled funds including stocks and hard assets like jewelry and other collectibles.

The feds alleged those returns were “grossly misrepresented” in an effort to lure new investors and to lull those already invested into a false sense of security. Without disclosure to investors, the complaint said, “Virtually all of the assets of the funds have been dissipated.”

Parish, a local expert on the economy who offered investment tips at speaking events including the Charleston Area Metro Chamber of Commerce and wrote columns for the local newspaper, checked himself into a hospital, claiming he had amnesia.

Named “outstanding faculty member” at North Charleston in 1992, Parish is reportedly one of the university’s highest-paid teachers. He directs the Center for Economic Forecasting, founded in 1990 as a partnership with the chamber of commerce as a community service. Programs include an annual conference attended by about 600 leading regional business professionals, viewed as good PR by the university.

Adding to his near-celebrity status is his penchant for loud-colored suits and a pen collection valued at more than $1 million, including one diamond-studded fountain pen worth $170,000. Victims said his image as an eccentric helped deceive investors by making him look harmless.

Based on his alleged expertise, the university said in its lawsuit, trustees signed agreements starting in 2002 to allow Parish to invest money in funds with expected yields of 9 percent or more a year, double the earnings of U.S. Treasury bonds, the benchmark for conservative investments.

Parish has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing.

In an unrelated case, officials in Holly Hill, Fla., said a pastor charged last week with exploiting an elderly widow out of $80,000 was convicted in 1988 of defrauding members of an Alabama Baptist church out of $120,000 in an investment scheme.

According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Robert N. Riddle, former pastor of Ridgeview Avenue Community Church–formerly known as First Baptist Church of Holly Hill–was arrested Wednesday in Marietta, Ga., on a Volusia County charge of exploiting the elderly.

Riddle, 56, stepped down as pastor March 25 after questions arose about his convincing the 20-member congregation to spend $300,000 on an airplane for his aviation business he said would produce 7 percent interest for the church.

Church members complained to authorities when they were having trouble paying their bills and learned Riddle had sold the airplane without their knowledge or approval.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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