Former disability lawyer Eric C. Conn pleaded not guilty to escape charges Wednesday, a day after the FBI flew him back to Kentucky from Honduras, where he was captured Saturday after six months as a fugitive.
Conn’s attorney, Scott White, entered the plea for him during his initial appearance on the charges.
White said he asked Conn, 57, why he went to Honduras.
“He just laughed and said, ‘There’s a story behind that,’” White said after Wednesday’s hearing.
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White said he hadn’t yet had time to talk to Conn about the details.
There was no consideration at Wednesday’s hearing of setting bond for Conn while he awaits trial in the escape case. That’s because Conn was sentenced to 12 years in prison in a separate fraud case after he absconded on June 2.
Conn started serving that sentence when U.S. authorities took charge of him in Honduras, White said.
Conn, wearing yellow jail scrubs and chained at the wrists and ankles, seemed at ease during the hearing, saying hello to prosecutors and waving to someone in the courtroom.
When U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Wier described the escape charges against Conn and asked if he understood, Conn answered firmly “Fully, your honor.”
White said Conn had a good attitude when they talked before the hearing, and has retained his sense of humor.
Still, White said he thought Conn is “obviously sad that he’s back here.”
White said if Conn had kept the bargain under his guilty plea in the initial fraud case, he might have been able to reduce his 12-year sentence to nine or 10 years, and serve 85 percent of that.
“It was quite a gamble that he took” by allegedly escaping, White said.
Conn had a multimillion-dollar practice in Eastern Kentucky representing people seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, but admitted in March that he submitted fraudulent evidence of mental and physical impairments on behalf of many clients.
Conn pleaded guilty to stealing from the government and to making illegal payments to David B. Daugherty, a Social Security judge who improperly awarded benefits to Conn’s clients.
Daugherty also pleaded guilty.
A jury convicted Alfred Bradley Adkins, a psychologist from Pikeville, of signing fraudulent forms for Conn describing clients’ impairments.
After Conn pleaded guilty, prosecutors recommended he remain on home incarceration — with electronic monitoring — pending sentencing in July.
On June 2, Conn was in Lexington for an approved meeting to discuss testifying against Adkins. He was supposed to return to his $1.5 million home in Pikeville, but instead cut the monitor from his ankle and fled.
The FBI released photos of him taken at a Walmart and a convenience store in New Mexico a few days later, but for months had not released any additional information about his suspected whereabouts.
While he was gone, a federal grand jury indicted Conn on charges of conspiracy, escape and failing to appear for sentencing in his earlier case. The grand jury charged a former employee of Conn’s, Curtis Lee Wyatt, with helping him.
News broke on Monday that authorities had arrested Conn on Dec. 2 at a Pizza Hut in La Ceiba, a city on the north coast of Honduras.
The hearing Wednesday included Conn’s arraignment in the escape case and discussion of the status of the earlier fraud case.
Conn was indicted on 18 charges related to the massive fraud against Social Security.
Prosecutors would have dropped the charges as part of his plea deal if Conn had shown up for sentencing as required.
Because he didn’t, prosecutors kept the charges in force. They include mail fraud, wire fraud and destruction of records.
The charges could keep Conn in prison for the rest of his life if he is convicted.
Wier gave prosecutors a week to let him know whether they intend to pursue that case against Conn in addition to the escape case.
White said he anticipates prosecutors will go after Conn on those charges, though he will research contesting whether the government has authority to do so.