The Kentucky Bar Association is reviewing reports that allege Floyd County attorney Eric C. Conn collected millions of dollars in fees by defrauding the Social Security Administration's disability benefits program.
A U.S. Senate committee made the allegations Monday in a lengthy investigative report and five-hour hearing where Conn declined to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Conn rigged medical records and steered hundreds of his check-seeking clients to an administrative law judge who improperly sped their cases through the system, Senate investigators and witnesses said.
As of Tuesday, Conn was a licensed attorney, said Thomas Glover, chief bar counsel. The KBA, an arm of the Kentucky Supreme Court, regulates the state's lawyers and enforces professional standards.
"We are working on it, we are looking at it," Glover said. "If what is being said is true, that could affect his license. It's too early to say."
U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey said he could not comment on whether his office is preparing a criminal prosecution related to the allegations. Apart from the Senate, the inspector general of the Social Security Administration also is investigating Conn's relationship with former disability appeals Judge David Daugherty, who approved 3,143 cases for Conn while working in the agency's Huntington, W.Va. office.
Also on Tuesday, two Kentucky state judges linked to Conn in the Senate report said their relationships were harmless.
Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott of Pikeville drove to Conn's law office several times and met privately with Conn to ask for help with his 2012 re-election campaign, according to Senate investigators and a separate investigation by the Kentucky attorney general's office.
In May 2011, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page story questioning the huge number of disability cases that Daugherty was approving for Conn. That was followed by Daugherty's retirement, inquiries by the Senate and inspector general, and a federal fraud lawsuit against Daugherty and Conn.
In an interview Tuesday, Scott said he was aware of the controversy when he solicited Conn's support. However, the justice said, no official action was taken against Conn immediately after the newspaper story, and Conn had no cases pending before the Supreme Court, so he did not see a problem.
"I had him checked out," Scott said.
In February 2012, Conn gave Scott's campaign the maximum $1,000 contribution allowed by state law. Then Conn tried to funnel $10,000 more to the campaign through $1,000 money orders under the names of 10 of his employees. The employees later told investigators the money was not theirs, and in some cases, they did not know who Scott was or they were not registered to vote.
The payments were coordinated by Kia Hampton, Miss Kentucky USA 2011, whom Conn hired as his public relations director for $70,000 a year. Hampton told investigators that Scott came to Conn's office and provided her with the envelopes for donations.
"Mr. Will T. Scott, let me first say that is an honor to be able to participate in your campaign," Hampton emailed Scott on Jan. 6, 2012. "Us at the Eric C. Conn law firm are very excited. Looking forward to meeting you next week!"
"Thanks, Kia. I'm just Will T.," Scott replied.
Scott's campaign returned the donations weeks later, explaining in cover letters that it could not accept money orders, only personal checks.
"Justice Scott said he did not recall him and Conn discussing a specific amount that Conn was going to raise for his campaign," investigators for the attorney general wrote in a report after interviewing Scott in July 2012.
"Scott said that he was surprised when he received the 10 money orders for $1,000 each," the investigators wrote. "He said that he immediately became concerned about the amount and that was what prompted him to send the money orders back to the contributors. He said that he just didn't feel it was a reasonable contribution for an employee making a low wage to contribute $1,000."
Scott was re-elected. Conn pleaded guilty in September in Franklin Circuit Court to a misdemeanor campaign-finance violation related to the donations. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail, though the sentence was conditionally discharged for two years.
Scott said Tuesday that he did nothing wrong.
"They attempted to support me in an improper manner, and we rejected the money," Scott said. "We sent the money back and we walked away."
Also, the Senate report Monday noted that Conn has helped the musical career of Pike District Judge Darrel Mullins, who plays in several bands.
Conn financed the production of a 2011 CD entitled The Eric C. Conn Law Complex Presents We the People: Songs by Darrel Mullins and Dan Huff, for which Mullins was paid for providing lead and background vocals, harmonica and guitar on various tracks. Conn also hired Mullins' band to play at one of his wedding receptions.
Mullins said Tuesday his earnings were $500 from the CD and $250 for the wedding reception. Mullins said he was comfortable taking payment from deals related to Conn because he didn't expect to see the disability benefits lawyer in his Pikeville courtroom.
"I want to do what's right and what's legal, as I have for the 17 years I've been on the bench," Mullins said. As for the disability-fraud allegations against Conn. Mullins said, "I'm learning a lot of things as the public learns them."