If you lived in Floyd County, the most recognizable person whose picture was plastered on every billboard, in every television commercial was the man who dubbed himself "Mr. Social Security," namely Eric C. Conn.
Through his advertising he became, by some accounts, the second-most successful Social Security practitioner in the nation, earning more than $22 million in fees.
Despite the fact that he advertised that he represented those injured in accidents, I have never seen him in the local courtrooms I have inhabited for 30 years.
After a Wall Street Journal story appeared in 2011 and Conn was featured on 60 Minutes, questions arose as to how legitimate his practice was.
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By pure coincidence, in September of 2013 while I was in the Franklin County Courthouse, I received a cell phone call that Conn was in the other courtroom pleading guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of operating a money-bundling scheme to defraud my wife's (Judge Janet Stumbo's ) 2012 judicial campaign.
A condition of the plea was that he report his violation to the Bar Association. To date, inexplicably Conn has not suffered any detriment to his law license or been charged criminally.
Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend of 2015. I received simultaneous cell-phone calls. On one line was attorney John Earl Hunt who advised that our client in a property-damage case, Leroy Burchett, just got a letter saying his Social Security benefits were immediately suspended. On the other line, was Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep who said he had just heard that 900 similar letters had gone out, according to his source at the Social Security Administration.
When I told John Earl what Estep had told me, he immediately responded, "Oh Ned, there will be suicides.
We know now: He was not being alarmist; he was prophetic.
Within days our client shot himself-after he abruptly ceased taking his anti-depressants. At the hastily-called emergency meeting of the Floyd County Bar that occurred in courtroom packed with those who just learned they had lost benefits, I read them a message from his widow, Emma, urging them "not to do what Leroy did."
After the meeting, waiting for me in my office was a state police detective advising me that Melissa Jude just shot herself in Martin County. Jude was frightened by the portion of the suspension-of-benefits letter which indicated she had 10 days to get her medical records to regain her benefits. After a medical provider told her it would take 30 days, she put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.
Days later, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, shaken by the suicides, used his influence to get the benefits reinstated. I will never forget that the great relief we felt that day was tempered by his warning that "they will be coming after your people and scheduling them for hearings."
That is where we are today.
Pending in federal court is a class-action lawsuit we filed to stop what I believe are hearings rigged against 1,787 of my friends and neighbors. Not waiting for the judge to rule, the SSA has arrogantly forged ahead with the hearings, which are ongoing.
Despite the outpouring of help from legal aid groups and a network of volunteer lawyers, I am fearful that many will lose their benefits, with devastating consequences for this region. I always remind myself that whatever pressure I am experiencing, it is a hundred times worse on the 1,787.