South Carolina's biggest bankruptcy swindles dreams, too

Associated Press

UNION, S.C. - After decades of working nearly every day at his diner, Gene Gregory planned to retire months ago and finally spend some time with his family.

But his $1.4 million nest egg disappeared last year when a South Carolina investment company went under in the largest bankruptcy in state history, not long after the firm's president assured him "you'll never lose a dime with Carolina Investors."

That has kept the 71-year-old Gregory behind the counter at his diner, and it will take a lot of $3.65 plates of burgers and fries to make his money back.

"Still open seven days. Got to be," said Gregory, who paused to wipe a tear from his eye. "I work seven days. I was here 20 years before I took a vacation. Trying to be successful. Trying to be something and somebody."

Gregory isn't much different from many of the firm's more than 8,000 investors who found themselves out more than $275 million in what many call a "little Enron."

But while Enron victims were spread across the country, most Carolina Investors customers were in South Carolina's Upstate, where textile mills used to give some workers the chance to rise from poverty through hard work and frugal living.

Most of the investors were near or at retirement age. Many put all their money into Carolina Investors, which offered returns as high as 8.5 percent by financing high-risk mortgage loans through its parent company, HomeGold.

Later this month, investors will start getting checks totaling 18 cents back on each dollar invested as part of a settlement of a lawsuit against the company's former executives.

Some optimists see it as more money than they could have expected, but many seethe at watching their investments decline more than 80 percent and wonder if by fighting in court they could have gotten more.

"I think all of us are in agreement that even if it is less money, it is in our best interest that these people that stole our money lose their automobiles, lose all their money. These people need to suffer like a lot of these investors have suffered," said Larry Madden of Pickens, who lost $700,000.

One bankruptcy expert said unsecured creditors such as those in the Carolina Investors case typically get back 10 cents or less for each dollar because the business had no hard assets such as equipment or land.

"A lot of time when you have big fraud like this, the only justice people get is putting people in jail. But that doesn't put money back in nest eggs," said University of South Carolina law professor Marie Reilly.

And the case seems to get more disheartening at every turn. The trustee in charge of the bankruptcy is now asking 130 investors who withdrew about $3 million in the three months before Carolina Investors collapsed why they took their money out early, violating the maturity dates of their investment contracts.

If they don't have a good reason, they'll have to pay the money back under federal law - a requirement state Attorney General Henry McMaster called "outrageous."

Carolina Investors began small, financing loans for cemetery plots in the 1960s.

The company acted like a bank. Tellers took deposits and promised to return money within 15 minutes if needed.

Carolina Investors used the money to finance home loans. The company did well for decades, and in 1995, it became a subsidiary of HomeGold, which started making loans nationwide.

The market for these high-risk mortgages crashed in 1998, and HomeGold found itself going into debt. By 2002, HomeGold owed more to Carolina Investors' depositors than the company was worth and the collapse came shortly after.

It was stunning because Carolina Investors executives were well-known in the community. Children put their money into the same accounts their parents drew from, and business spread through word-of-mouth to friends and neighbors at ball fields or in church.

So even when rumors spread in 2002 that HomeGold was in bad shape, many investors stayed the course because Carolina Investors president Larry Owen or chairman Earle Morris, an ex-lieutenant governor, told them the money was safe.

Behind the scenes, HomeGold appeared to know things were bad, according to testimony in the civil suit.

Among the documents seized from the company was a press release touting HomeGold's earnings and profits being up during one quarter. Scribbled on the release in green ink was an explicative beginning with "bull," U.S. District Judge G. Ross Anderson said in an April hearing.

Gregory read one of those stories about HomeGold's problems in May 2002, about a year after he put his money into Carolina Investors. He dropped everything he was doing and rushed to Owen's office.

Gregory said Owen told him, "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of you like family."

"He said, 'I know enough about you, how hard you worked, I'll never let you lose a dime,'" Gregory said.

He demanded the assurance in writing. That letter was a big part of the pile of evidence that led Owen to plead guilty to 22 counts of securities fraud earlier this year. His sentencing has been delayed until the criminal investigation is finished.

Morris' trial on similar charges began last week. No one with HomeGold has been charged, although the state attorney general's office says it continues to investigate the collapse.

Gregory has no sympathy for Owen or other executives.

"Only difference between me and him is he's going to be behind bars and I'm going to be here working seven days trying to survive."

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