Tyrone Gilliams: Ivy League Scam Artist

Charged by the feds with running a Ponzi scheme, this former Philly success story's web of deceit is just starting to unravel.

It’s 10:37 on an absurdly hot Monday morning in New York, and I’m sitting in a 24th-floor federal courtroom, waiting for Tyrone Gilliams Jr.

It’s April 23rd, and everyone else has been here since just past 10, including Gilliams’s new Center City attorney, pugnacious Todd Henry, and his previous attorney, Everette L. Scott Jr.—who, to his own horror and embarrassment, was recently sucked into the Gilliams whirlpool as a co-defendant.

A 50-year-old former Howard University football player and Widener Law grad who represents several NFL players, Scott practices in South Jersey but first took on Gilliams as a client in 2009, when he was trying to build a sports law practice at prestigious Spector Gadon & Rosen near Rittenhouse Square. Scott was indicted a few months after Gilliams, in late January; the $5 million allegedly stolen was originally sent to Scott’s escrow account. While Scott stands and sits proudly broad-shouldered, he has been devastated by the case. In our occasional email correspondence, he has assiduously refused to talk in any detail about it, even as he’s let me know just how crushing the ordeal has been. He declared personal bankruptcy in January, and has had health problems. The relationship he entered into after being named one of the Daily News’s “Sexy Singles” in 2010, he says, has been put to the test. He has vigorously maintained his innocence.

Gilliams, on the other hand, has all but vanished from public view. I’d been hounding him for more than four months when Todd Henry finally shot me a note from his BlackBerry saying he could arrange an interview. A day later, he said Gilliams wouldn’t even call him back, so the interview was off.

So now here we all are, in New York federal court.

“You know what this case reminds me of?” Henry says to me as we wait. “You know that movie The Sting?” At the mention of the movie title, another lawyer walking by puts his hand to his face and perfectly executes the “tip of the nose” motion made famous as the signal to those in on that scam. Henry laughs, repeats the motion. He’s right: This case is like The Sting. The problem is, everyone thinks he or she is the “mark” who was stung. Including Gilliams, who apparently believes he’s the victim of a scheme—and a selective, racially motivated prosecution.

At 10:44, the large wooden back doors of the courtroom swing open, and Gilliams walks in. He’s tall but not overpowering—with his close-cropped hair and goatee, he looks like a shorter Moses Malone. He walks with a slight limp. His dark blue business suit is rumpled after the trip from Philly; his face is impassive, and he has a look in his eyes of spent brashness that conjures the word “saditude.” He takes a seat next to his former lawyer and now co-defendant, Scott, but the two barely acknowledge each other. Then Gilliams puts his right hand to his face and slouches in to converse with Henry.

The case against Gilliams starts with a 66-year-old semi-retired Cincinnati ATM company executive named Dave Parlin, who invested $4 million with a new-agey nonprofit, and a 70-something businessman named Vassilis Morfopoulos, a heavyset, bald Greek national who wouldn’t look out of place as a James Bond villain (“Dr. Morf”). Morfopoulos allegedly claimed he could help Parlin earn five percent a week on his money, with minimal risk, by investing in Treasury strips, an obscure derivative of T-Bills. But the $4 million was never invested in strips. Instead, Morfopoulos gave the money to Tyrone Gilliams, who supposedly had access to the strips through his brokerage account with Wells Fargo Advisers on the 46th floor of One Liberty Place.

According to lawsuits filed against him by Parlin and the SEC’s complaint, Gilliams never invested the $4 million as promised; instead, he had the funds transferred to his personal bank account and started spending. (Gilliams, through his lawyer, denies ever promising to invest the money in strips specifically.)

Either way, Parlin claims he didn’t know Gilliams even had his money until it was gone. Soon, the FBI was investigating a criminal case, which quickly came under the jurisdiction of the most powerful federal prosecutor in the country, Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York, who handles all major Wall Street financial fraud cases. In November, Tyrone Gilliams was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York.

Back in the courtroom, the judge finally starts the proceedings, and dispatches the hearing quickly: The lawyers will convene again in late June, with a trial perhaps beginning in January.

Afterward, I chase down Henry in the lobby, making one last stab at an interview with Gilliams. He says his client is about to meet up with him, and we all can talk. We stand outside, waiting, for 10 minutes. Henry’s phone rings. It’s Tyrone.

“Where are you?” Henry asks, and starts explaining where we’re standing. Then he says, “Oh, okay” and hangs up.

Tyrone, he says, is already gone.