With his disappearance last weekend — just weeks short of being sentenced for his years of operating a scheme to defraud the government’s Social Security disability program — Eric Conn has an almost unbroken record of playing the federal government and winning.
In the sensational truth-is-stranger-than-fiction saga of Conn, he is one of the very few winners. Hundreds of Kentucky and West Virginia families have been devastated. Taxpayers will be out tens of millions before the story of Conn is laid to rest, if it ever is.
Conn pleaded guilty in March to stealing from the Social Security Administration in a scheme that involved bribing an SSA disability judge and submitting fraudulent medical documents in over 1,700 disability cases going back to at least 2004.
By 2011, two employees of the West Virginia SSA office, where the judge practiced, had sounded an alert on peculiarities in the handling of Conn’s cases. The office’s chief judge retaliated against the whistle blowers but left Conn untouched.
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That same year the Wall Street Journal published an investigation of the scheme, and in 2013 both a U.S. Senate committee and “60 Minutes” looked into it. Still, the SSA took no action against Conn.
In 2015 the SSA did act decisively — against Conn’s clients. The agency sent letters to about 1,500 people Conn had represented saying it was suspending payments while reviewing their claims. Over a year later, U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar said the SSA was wrong to cut them off without a hearing. About half have now regained benefits but building some cases has been difficult because Conn had thousands of records destroyed, burned computers and smashed hard drives with hammers.
It wasn’t until April 2016 that Conn himself was finally indicted.
As a result of his guilty plea, Conn was ordered to pay more than $80 million to the government and whistle blowers — although it’s unlikely he could come up with the money — and was awaiting sentencing.
Although former employees said Conn had talked about taking flight to a foreign country, he was allowed to remain on home detention, with his passport surrendered and wearing an ankle bracelet to trace his movements, while he awaited sentencing.
But the FBI notified the media Saturday evening that Conn’s electronic monitoring device had been removed and he’d disappeared.
Conn has been dodging the federal bullet for a long time. Before he got into the SSA disability game, he represented people before the Veterans Claims Court, and was investigated for professional misconduct there. In an agreement accepted by a three-judge panel, the charges were dropped and he resigned from practice before the court. One judge dissented in part, saying he thought the court should notify other jurisdictions of the investigation and disciplinary action.
Hopefully Conn will be caught and finally serve his time. But even if that happens, the story of this accomplished white-collar criminal should prompt serious soul-searching about how and why so many red flags were so long ignored.