Eric C. Conn has eaten his last Pizza Hut meal for a long time, but his story is far from over.
Conn is the flamboyant former attorney who pleaded guilty in March to cheating the Social Security Administration out of millions by falsifying disability claims but fled the country while awaiting sentencing on home detention. He was captured at a Pizza Hut in Honduras Saturday and returned to Lexington Tuesday.
Conn may very well never emerge from United States custody. Officials have said the $550 million fraud he carried out was the largest in Social Security history. He colluded with a bribed Social Security judge and doctors who certified disabilities in people they had not, in some cases, even seen. The judge and a psychologist have pleaded guilty and are serving prison terms.
For many, the welcome sight of Conn descending from the flight that returned him to Kentucky in handcuffs may signal a fitting conclusion to his wild story.
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But for hundreds of families in Eastern Kentucky and in West Virginia, the painful legacy of Conn’s scam will linger for years.
Although it ignored whistle blowers for years, when it did acknowledge the fraud, the SSA notified 1,500 people who had been represented by Conn that their cases would be reviewed to re-determine eligibility and suspended disability payments for about 900 of them.
Many of those individuals and their families depended upon the disability payments to afford the most basic necessities. The suspensions may have even contributed to three suicides.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, persuaded the SSA to restore payments pending the reviews but hundreds have had to endure the ordeal of trying to rebuild medical records from years ago (many of which Conn destroyed) for their reviews.
It doesn’t end there. The hall of shame for individuals or institutions dirtied or damaged by contact with Conn includes:
▪ The U.S. Constitution. U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar wrote that the SSA denied Conn’s clients the basic protection of due process when it took away their benefits without a hearing. Referring to the lead plaintiff in a case challenging that action, he wrote, “If the government threw Amy Jo Hicks in jail because she was a member of Al Qaeda, she would get a chance to challenge that factual assertion before a neutral arbiter.”
▪ Taxpayers. We funded not only Conn’s scam but also the six-month search leading to his arrest and return, not to mention the future cost of his incarceration for years to come.
▪ The whistle blowers. The two women faced retaliation within the SSA appeals office in Huntington, W.Va., when they raised questions about Conn’s relationship with the judge there.
▪ The Kentucky Bar Association. Legitimate questions about Conn’s fitness to practice law went back as far as 2002 and had been exposed by the Wall Street Journal, “60 Minutes” and a U.S. Senate committee. The KBA didn’t suspend Conn’s license to practice law in Kentucky until he pleaded guilty early this year.
Congratulations to the FBI and other agencies that tracked down and captured Conn. But if only the SSA had listened to the whistle blowers instead of targeting them, we could have been spared so much of this human and institutional damage.