Defending Darlie

Wealthy Waco businessman Brian Pardo spends his time and money helping death-row inmates he believes are innocent. His efforts on behalf of Darlie Routier have raised suspicions about her husband--and about Pardo's motives.

No one questions Brian Pardo's good intentions and generosity. He is funding part of Routier's appeal and is underwriting an investigation into the case. But Pardo has a dangerous tendency toward recklessness, stating suppositions and spinning Hollywood-flavored murder scenarios as if they were fact. Pardo's detractors wonder whether he seriously seeks the truth, or is simply engaged in a midlife Walter Mitty fantasy wherein he gets to play amateur sleuth and would-be savior.

"This is not a hobby," Pardo bristles. "It's a burden. It's gut-wrenching, stressful, frustrating, and extremely serious and not rewarding. There is every reason in the world not to be doing this. And only one reason to do it--justice. If you believe in justice as a concept, then you don't want to see injustice. I can't solve all the world's problems. But maybe I can prevent one innocent woman from being executed for a crime she did not commit."

In searching for a way to describe the impossible predicament in which he finds himself, he borrows a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. "'Consider the case of the ass,'" Pardo says, "'with a burden too heavy to carry and too heavy to throw off.'

"Remember," he adds, "we didn't go looking for these cases; they came looking for us."

Short, stocky and snub-nosed, Brian Pardo is no stranger to controversy. Nor is he one to shrink from criticism or shy away from a good fight.

The son of a sailor, he and his twin brother were born in Pittsburgh 55 years ago while his parents were in the process of relocating to a new Naval base in San Francisco. He grew up in Phoenix and attended Arizona State University, where he majored in business. Dropping out of college after three years, he joined the Army and flew helicopter gunships in Vietnam until a crash sent him to the hospital with five fractured vertebrae.

After leaving the Army, Pardo bounced around the country before settling with his wife in Reno, Nevada, where he started a solar energy company in 1974.

Two years later he moved the company to Waco to be close to Baylor University, which had received an alternative energy research grant from the Department of Energy. Capitalizing on the oil embargoes of the 1970s, American Solar King became "the Sears of residential solar panels," Pardo says. In the 15 months after Pardo's company went public, its stock soared from $3 to $99 a share.

"That's a Hillary Clinton investment," Pardo says.
Pardo made many people, including himself, rich, but within a decade the company declared bankruptcy. Pardo blames his sudden financial reversals on President Reagan, who allowed alternative energy tax credits to evaporate when oil again became cheap.

Solar King's investors who lost big preferred to blame Pardo, though he lost biggest of all--$12 million. In a recent Houston Chronicle story about Pardo, a bigwig in the McLennan County Republican party claimed Pardo caused hard feelings in his hometown by continuing to live large--including buying a home overlooking Lake Waco--while his company was going down the tubes. Pardo insists that he bought his house several years earlier and, in fact, conducted his business affairs with more integrity than most people who go through bankruptcy. He repaid all his creditors and did not liquidate the company until 1990, just about the time he began his next controversial, and highly lucrative, business venture.

"Ghoulish," "morbid," and "vulture," were adjectives used to describe Pardo when he launched what would become the first and largest company in the country to buy and re-sell the life-insurance policies of AIDS patients and others with terminal illnesses. In a transaction known as a viatical settlement, Pardo's Life Partners buys the policies at a discount, giving the dying patient access to a hefty portion of the benefits before they die and giving investors the rest afterward.

For a terminally ill person who can no longer work and whose life savings have been devoured by medical costs, such a transaction can restore some quality of life. Still, time and again Pardo would be disparaged for the unseemly pursuit of "speculating in death."

"I would tell the press, I'm not speculating in death," Pardo counters. "These people are going to die. They're past denial. You're not. They're interested in how they're going to live until they die."

Investors, however, made no apologies, for they were making an average of 19 percent return on their money. Yet in 1992, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Life Partners, accusing Pardo of violating securities laws in the way that he resells policies to investors. State regulators followed suit, and when one of them called the business "ghoulish and insensitive," Pardo sued him for slander.

Life Partners lost the first legal round, and a disgusted Pardo, tired of the heavy hand of government regulation, decided to run for Congress in 1996. He made it into the runoff election in the Republican primary. A fiscal conservative and social moderate, Pardo lost the nomination to a young candidate who was backed by the Christian Coalition.

But on the legal front, Pardo emerged victorious when a federal appeals court ruled that federal securities law did not cover viatical settlements.

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