$550 million fraud lawyer disappears; co-workers told of possible escape to Cuba

Social Security lawyer Eric Conn
Social Security lawyer Eric Conn

Eric Conn, the flamboyant Eastern Kentucky lawyer who pleaded guilty in March in a $550 million Social Security fraud scheme, has disappeared, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Saturday.

The FBI office in Louisville issued a press release saying Conn had removed his electronic monitoring device in violation of his bond and that authorities didn’t know where he was.

Conn pleaded guilty to stealing from the Social Security Administration and paying bribes to a judge to rubber-stamp disability claims for thousands of his clients. Conn remained free on bond pending his sentencing next month, but a judge had ordered him to be on home detention with electronic monitoring.

Conn faced up to 12 years in prison. He had also been ordered to pay more than $80 million — $5.7 million to repay fraudulent earnings; $46.5 million to the Social Security Administration; and $31 million to the government and two whistleblowers who helped expose his wrongdoing and their attorneys.

After Conn was arrested in April 2016, prosecutors argued he should have to stay in jail pending trial, partly because of the risk that he could flee.

Employees in Conn’s office had heard him say he would flee to Cuba or Ecuador to avoid criminal charges, and Conn had wired substantial sums of money out of the country at times, an FBI agent testified at one hearing.

“If he were to leave, to cross a border, he could go to wherever he has stashed some money and flee,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Trey Alford said at the time.

Conn’s attorneys pointed out that he had not fled even though he’d known for years that he was under investigation, and that he had substantial ties to home, including his elderly mother and teen daughter.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Wier allowed Conn out of jail but set a number of conditions, including home detention with GPS monitoring at his large house in Pikeville. Wier also required Conn to pledge his home to secure a $1.25 million bond and to surrender his passport.

Conn said at the time that he was not a threat to skip town.

“Your trust is not misplaced,” he told Wier.

After Conn pleaded guilty and before he escaped, prosecutors changed position, recommending Conn be allowed to remain free on bond pending sentencing. A judge agreed.

The court issued an arrest warrant for Conn Saturday after he disappeared, according to the release from FBI chief counsel David Habich.

Conn’s lawyer, Scott White of Lexington, said in a phone call Saturday said he was “extremely concerned” about Conn.

“Certainly, we are praying that Eric does the right thing and turns himself in because it’s not too late,” White said. “We’re also praying for law enforcement who have to do this search.”

It didn’t surprise some people that Conn apparently fled, however.

Lexington attorney Mark Wohlander said he predicted early in the case against Conn that “the day would come when they would find his ankle bracelet lying on the ground at the Pikeville airport” after he slipped the monitoring device and fled.

Wohlander represents the two former Social Security employees who tried for years to raise red flags about Conn and accomplice David B. Daugherty, a judge with the agency.

Wohlander said he called the two women after learning of Conn’s disappearance and advised them to ask police to make more frequent patrols past their houses.

Conn was once one of the top disability lawyers in the nation.

He promoted himself on television and on billboards throughout Eastern Kentucky as “Mr. Social Security” and worked out of an office complex made of five connected mobile homes in Floyd County with a 19-foot-tall statue of Abraham Lincoln out front, where he once put a Miss Kentucky USA on the payroll for $70,000 a year as his public relations director.

The Social Security Administration paid Conn’s firm $23 million from August 2005 to September 2015 for his work, according to one court order, making him one of the top earners in the program nationally.

But Conn, 56, admitted he cheated to win, submitting false documentation for clients seeking disability payments and paying off a federal administrative law judge who approved the claims.

Conn was charged with Daugherty, a longtime Social Security Administration judge, and Bradley Adkins, a psychologist in Pikeville.

Daugherty pleaded guilty, admitting he took more than $600,000 in illegal payments from Conn to rubber-stamp awards of disability checks to his clients.

Adkins allegedly signed documents verifying Conn’s clients were disabled without examining them. He has denied the charges and is scheduled to go on trial Monday in Lexington.

Prosecutors would likely have called Conn as a witness against Adkins.

Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represents former clients of Conn suing him for fraud, said he has long thought Conn would flee. He sought to tie up Conn’s assets as part of that case as a result, Pillersdorf said.

Conn is an experienced international traveler, still has admirers who could help him and may have some cash stashed somewhere, Pillersdorf said.

“You won’t find anybody in Floyd County who’s surprised by this,” he said.

Pillersdorf said Conn may have thought he would be jailed after testifying in the Adkins trial, which could explain the timing of when he left.

The Conn case has caused a good deal of heartache in Eastern Kentucky. At least two people committed suicide after the Social Security Administration said it would cut off benefits to Conn clients because of suspected fraudulent information used in their cases, and hundreds reportedly have lost benefits.

Anyone with information about Conn has been asked to contact the FBI at 502-263-6000

Bill Estep: 606-678-4655, @billestep1