In September 2002, a judge wrote a partial dissent in a case involving Eric C. Conn. The judge, a member of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, agreed with the other members of his panel that Conn should never again practice before their court, following an investigation for professional misconduct.
But he dissented in part from the order because it didn’t require telling other jurisdictions where Conn practiced about the dismissal. While the resignation — and promise to never practice there again — solved the problem for Veterans Claims, failing to notify others, he wrote, “reflects an ill-advised restriction of our concern to how an action will affect only our corner of the legal world.”
Last Friday, after his misdeeds had spread far beyond that corner of the legal world, Conn pleaded guilty to two federal felony counts, stealing from the Social Security Administration and paying off a federal judge. Conn said he had falsified documents in “well over” 1,700 disability cases. He has agreed to pay the SSA over $51 million and could be sentenced for up to 12 years in prison.
It wasn’t until the next day that the Kentucky Bar Association suspended his license to practice law in Kentucky.
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That was almost 15 years after the 2002 dismissal from Veterans Claims Court, which was public record even if other jurisdictions weren’t formally notified. It was more than five years after whistle blowers first warned about Conn’s scheme. It was well after an investigation by a U.S. Senate committee and exposes by both the Wall Street Journal and “60 Minutes,” after Conn had destroyed hundreds of thousands of client records to protect himself and, in an unrelated case, pleaded guilty in Kentucky to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation in 2013,
It is hard to hail Conn’s plea and punishment as justice finally served in this long, tortured case.
It does not compensate for the distress suffered by hundreds of Conn’s former clients when the Social Security Administration abruptly cut off their benefits with no hearing, even before it took action against Conn. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers intervened and the SSA restored the benefits pending hearings to examine their claims.
Even that was cold comfort for many since Conn had destroyed records, making it difficult for those with legitimate claims to substantiate them. A federal judge last year said the claimants should have had the chance to plead their case “before a neutral arbiter,” noting that a member of al-Qaida would have been given that opportunity.
The plea does not answer questions about the integrity of management at the Social Security Administration, which was very slow to question why one administrative judge in West Virginia processed so many cases so favorably for Conn, even after whistle blowers sounded an alarm as early as 2011. Instead, Conn conspired with the chief judge of the regional office to retaliate against one of the whistle blowers.
It cannot tell the public why, after the Wall Street Journal investigation of Conn’s activities in 2011, and in 2013 a Senate committee accused Conn of “massive fraud,” involving “whore doctors,” all reported on “60 Minutes” — the judge, Conn and a psychologist were not indicted until last year.
And it cannot explain why, despite serious questions about his probity going back almost 15 years, the Kentucky Bar Association took no action to protect Conn’s clients in this corner of the legal world.