State

‘A really odd person:’ Fugitive lawyer Eric C. Conn’s bizarre life story

The billboard at left in front of Eric C. Conn's former law office on U.S. 23 in Floyd County was covered over after Conn pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal disability program.
The billboard at left in front of Eric C. Conn's former law office on U.S. 23 in Floyd County was covered over after Conn pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal disability program. bestep@herald-leader.com

Some people were surprised when a person claiming to be Eric C. Conn, the onetime king of Eastern Kentucky disability cases, took the risk of emailing messages to reporters while hiding from the FBI, but to those who know him well, it was classic Conn.

The attention-grabbing move. The cleverness and effort to control others. The chutzpah of trying to dictate the terms of his surrender.

“It just adds a whole ’nother level of craziness to this,” said Adam Murphy, a former employee of Conn’s law firm. “He does things that are meant to shock you. This does sound like Eric.”

Conn was nothing if not unorthodox as he built a multimillion-dollar legal practice representing people seeking federal disability checks in a poor place, only to see it crumble after admitting unprecedented fraud.

His over-the-top efforts to promote himself as “Mr. Social Security” were the most visible example.

He hired attractive young women — “Conn hotties,” some called them — to wear short shorts and brightly colored T-shirts with his name on them at basketball games, concerts and festivals, sometimes along with a life-size cardboard cutout of Conn.

His bright-yellow billboards sprouted across Eastern Kentucky like giant garish dandelions, and he advertised heavily on television, in newspapers, on telephone books and through the internet. One ad used monkeys to represent Social Security employees. Another was a 3-D ad with instructions on how to make 3-D glasses.

The area had never seen similar promotional efforts by a lawyer.

“It was an astonishing saturation media campaign,” said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who met Conn in the early 1990s when he asked Pillersdorf for a job.

Conn had been in the Army but returned home after leaving with the rank of captain.

Conn gave Pillersdorf a résumé stating that he was a member of Mensa International, the organization for people with IQs in the top 2 percent worldwide.

“He told me how smart he was,” Pillersdorf said.

Pillersdorf said he did not hire Conn, but in an email the newspaper received after this story was first posted, a person claiming to be Conn said he took a job at another firm instead.

Conn, who received a law degree in 1988 from Ohio Northern University, set up his own office in 1993 in a mobile home at Stanville, next to his mother’s house.

Conn later told the Medical Leader, a publication in Pikeville, that at first he used only two rooms because he couldn’t afford to update the carpet in the rest of the trailer, which his parents had given him.

He started out representing people accused of crimes, including a sensational case in which six young people from Eastern Kentucky were accused of murdering a couple and their 6-year-old daughter in Tennessee after the family had attended a Jehovah’s Witness conference.

Conn’s client, reputed ringleader Natasha Cornett, told him she was the daughter of Satan, and others in the group allegedly had interests in the occult.

Conn spoke openly about Cornett’s occult activities, released information from her diaries, and allowed her to answer questions from a reporter. That all reportedly troubled other defense attorneys.

A judge removed Conn from the case after his Tennessee co-counsel withdrew and Conn didn’t quickly find a replacement, which was required.

‘He wasn’t lazy’

Conn ultimately narrowed the focus of his practice to handling claims for people seeking payments through the Social Security Administration for physical or mental disabilities — the work he promoted through his relentless advertising.

Conn had a 19-foot-tall replica of the Lincoln Memorial installed in his parking lot. He said it cost $500,000 and was the second-tallest Lincoln statue in the world, behind the original in Washington, D.C.

In one of his oddest gambits, Conn spent more than $40,000 to commission a video featuring Bluegrass music legend Ralph Stanley; Amber Lee Ettinger, a model who became known as Obama Girl after being featured in a 2007 comedy video about having a crush on the future president; and Jesco White, known regionally as the Dancing Outlaw.

Ettinger sang Conn’s praises in the video, describing him as a “superhero without a cape,” which she rhymed with “He learned Spanish off of a tape.”

Conn said the goal of the video, in which he did a shuffling dance with Ettinger, was to get Obama to appoint him to a spot on the Social Security Advisory Board.

Conn told The Courier-Journal in 2011 that he was usually a boring lawyer who worked within the ethical confines of the profession, but that his marketing efforts gave him a chance to cut loose.

“Some things I like to have fun on, and advertising and those kind of things give me a certain amount of leeway, a lot of leeway, that I don’t have in the practice of law,” Conn said.

The person claiming to be Conn, who responded to questions after this story was first posted, said in an email that he is an introvert.

“Yet, most people do not know that until they get to know me because I try to show a really good ‘extrovert’ front,” the email said. “I have a quick wit and love to laugh about everything under the sun.”

Some lawyers in the area thought Conn’s efforts to promote himself were almost cartoonish, demeaning the dignity of the profession.

Conn made lawyers look like “cheap hucksters,” Pillersdorf said.

Herbie Deskins, a Pikeville attorney and former state representative, said he criticized Conn at one point over a song that said Conn led troops in the first Gulf War. He said it implied Conn that led troops in combat, when that phase of the war was over before he deployed, Deskins said.

Deskins said someone claiming to be a private investigator called and warned him against talking about Conn. He later learned that it was one of Conn’s employees who wasn’t an investigator, Deskins said.

“He’s the most narcissistic person I’ve ever seen,” Deskins said of Conn.

In an email after this story was first posted, Conn said he had been released from active duty before the start of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, but he was recalled to active duty and arrived in late 1991. That would have been after the ground-combat phase of the war, which lasted only 100 hours.

The email said Conn was a personal aide to the top U.S. general.

Whatever other lawyers thought of Conn’s advertising, it worked. He ultimately built one of the largest disability practices in the nation, with thousands of clients and 30 to 40 employees at times.

Even critics acknowledge his drive.

“He would work,” Deskins said. “He wasn’t lazy.”

‘He was pretty flashy’

Within a few years, nearly half the cases being heard at the Prestonsburg satellite office of the regional Social Security office in Huntington, W.V., were Conn’s, according to information included in the report of a two-year investigation of the office by former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Jennifer Griffith, a master docket clerk in the Huntington office, testified in the investigation that several other lawyers complained that they were losing business to Conn because of his claims that he could get benefits awarded quickly.

The Social Security Administration paid Conn’s firm $23 million in fees between 2005 and 2015, an FBI agent testified at one hearing.

Conn lived well on the money.

He bought a Rolls-Royce and laughed when an employee wrecked it. He wore expensive suits and took scores of trips to destinations that included Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and South America, staying gone for weeks at times. He paid cash for a $1.5 million, 10,000-square-foot home in Pikeville, where he considered adding a bowling alley to go with the theater.

“He was pretty flashy,” Murphy said.

Conn’s attorney, Scott White, said Conn figured out a way to effectively promote his practice and do a high volume of disability cases well. Some criticism of him is rooted in jealousy that he got ahead of others in the field, White said.

“This is a guy that is beyond smart and applies pretty sound business principles to his practice,” White said.

Conn also was known for his string of attractive, much younger wives and girlfriends. He has been married and divorced more than a dozen times, according to former employees, although the person claiming to be Conn said the number was less.

Several divorces recorded in Pike County show a pattern:

▪  He married a Colombian woman in Barbados in November 2004 and separated less than a week later. He was 44. She was 18.

▪  He married a woman in Barbados in April 2005 and separated nine months later. He was 45 when he filed for divorce. She was 22.

▪  In one case, Conn said he married a woman in Colombia in May 2003 and they separated the same day. He was 42. She was 21.

Jamie Slone, who worked for Conn nearly six years, said in a sworn statement to the Senate committee that Conn often sent money to an associate in Thailand to support women there. Conn also tried to smuggle women into the country, she said.

Conn also reportedly dated internet porn star Raven Riley. She recorded a video — which appeared to be scripted — saying Conn had broken up with her after learning what she did for a living.

“You can take your Mercedes, your beach house, your Armani suits, and shove it up your a--,” Riley said in the video.

Legal trouble

Conn had aspirations that were bigger than Eastern Kentucky, opening an office in Los Angeles in 2012 to handle disability cases there, but ultimately buckled under allegations that he had taken part in fraud on a breathtaking scale.

A federal grand jury indicted Conn in April 2016, alleging that he had falsified medical evidence to submit for clients, had paid doctors to sign off on bogus evaluations that Conn or employees had drafted, and had bribed a Social Security judge to award benefits to his clients without scrutiny.

Conn had weathered legal bumps before.

In 2002, he gave up his right to represent clients at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims during an investigation of allegations of professional misconduct, and in 2013, he pleaded guilty to a campaign-finance charge.

Witnesses said Conn funneled $10,000 to Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, who faced a challenge from Appeals Court Judge Janet Stumbo, through contributions in the names of employees. Scott sent back the contributions.

Deputies to then-Attorney General Jack Conway approved a deal for Conn to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and pay $5,600 in restitution.

Many people thought Conn would fight the 2016 federal indictment that threatened to end his lucrative career, but in March, he pleaded guilty to two felonies.

The plea deal outlined a sentence of up to 12 years, a $5.7 million payment to the U.S. Department of Justice, and $46.5 million in restitution to the Social Security Administration.

The Justice Department said Conn’s scheme to defraud Social Security was the largest in its history dating to the 1930s.

The judge, David B. Daugherty, who was charged with Conn, admitted that he took $609,000 in bribes from Conn between 2004 and 2011. He approved disability checks for clients of Conn in 3,149 cases in that time, according to a court document.

A jury convicted Pikeville psychologist Bradley Adkins, who was charged with signing false mental-impairment evaluations for Conn.

White said Daugherty approached Conn to start the bribery scheme, not the other way around, but White acknowledged that Conn made a terrible mistake.

“Where it ultimately led was his ruination,” White said.

The person claiming to be Conn said he turned down Daugherty when he first asked for money, but Daugherty then called and said “that if I wanted to continue with a successful Social Security practice, I would give him the money.”

Hundreds of Conn’s clients were forced to go through new determinations on their eligibility for disability benefits.

Pillersdorf, who has represented many of the people, said he discovered that in some cases, Conn didn’t submit some of the medical evidence that clients had provided.

“My view that he was a competent practitioner radically changed,” Pillersdorf said.

‘A really odd person’

Conn was on home detention after he pleaded guilty, wearing an electronic monitoring device on his ankle, but he wasn’t done with surprises.

On June 2, after an approved meeting in Lexington to go over his planned testimony against Adkins, Conn cut off the monitor and disappeared.

A week later, a man claiming to be Conn started sending emails to the Herald-Leader.

The first bemoaned more lenient treatment in the justice system for public officials and set out conditions for his surrender. One was a requirement for a public statement from the FBI that Conn absconded because he was upset that two judges who admitted wrongdoing in his case would get less prison time than he would. Another was an assurance he wouldn’t be charged with a crime for leaving home detention.

The FBI said agents think the emails were either from Conn or someone close enough to him to have intimate knowledge of his case and his escape.

Another email asked the newspaper to stop publishing Conn’s unflattering jail mug shot.

The person stopped contacting the Herald-Leader for a time after the newspaper refused his demand to print unproven allegations of wrongdoing by former Conn employees and an attack on whistle-blowers who raised red flags to Social Security officials about Daugherty and Conn.

The person then contacted several other media outlets, plus Pillersdorf and Lexington attorney Mark Wohlander, who have been adversaries of Conn in court.

The writer insulted Wohlander with a reference to the cartoon ogre Shrek but said he doubted whether Wohlander understood the reference and that he had “neither the time nor the crayons to explain it to you.”

Wohlander said Conn is very bright, but he thinks Conn displays a number of antisocial traits, including a grandiose self-concept, superficial charm and a callousness and lack of true remorse.

“He’s just a really odd person,” Wohlander said.

In a later email, the person claiming to be Conn responded that “psychoanalysis from Wohlander is comical.”

‘Just good-hearted’

Conn, though, has his defenders, including former employees who say he paid and treated them well.

Megan Shelton, who worked for Conn from February 2013 to June 2016, said he was easygoing, has a good sense of humor and was good to her, consoling her at one point when an upset client was hateful to her.

“To me he was just good-hearted in general,” Shelton said. “I seen him truly care about his clients and what was best for them.”

Other employees said Conn supported a number of community causes, including Christmas toy drives, youth sports and help for flood victims.

Adam Murphy, a paralegal, started working for Conn in 2011. Conn sent him to open the California office in 2014.

“He gave me a lot of great opportunities and really believed in me,” Murphy said.

Murphy said Conn was well known for “crazy antics,” such as his marketing efforts, but he worked long and hard to be successful.

“He worked most of the time. If he wasn’t, he was thinking about work,” Murphy said.

Several of Conn’s former employees declined to speak on the record with the Herald-Leader, but two gave testimony or affidavits to the Senate committee that hinted at less flattering attributes, including efforts to manipulate others.

Longtime employee Jamie Slone said that after publicity surfaced in 2011 about Conn’s relationship with Daugherty, Conn started using a metal detector to check people before they entered his office to make sure they weren’t carrying recording devices.

Slone said Conn had records destroyed and told an employee to smash computer hard drives after the Social Security Administration began investigating him.

And in one odd incident, Slone said, Conn had a voodoo doll with a pin through the heart delivered to Salyersville attorney Grover Arnett, a competitor for disability clients.

Melinda Hicks, who worked for Conn from January 2006 to February 2012, said Conn tried to involve her in a scheme to follow and discredit a whistleblower at the Huntington Social Security office after the story broke about Daugherty approving a high number of his cases.

Hicks said she wasn’t comfortable doing that.

“After the story came out, I did not stick around too much longer because Eric Conn did start to do things so crazy, like have someone call my phone so that he could stalk some person,” Hicks told the Senate panel. “He would get upset if you told him no to anything, so when I told him I did not want to do that, there were just days that he would not talk to you for a while and make you feel bad for not doing what he wanted.”

Hicks said Conn also asked her to take a backpack with $240,000 in it and deposit the money at a bank in her name. She refused.

White, Conn’s attorney, said it’s not fair to demonize Conn He said Conn helped a lot of people get disability benefits that they’d been denied earlier, and that brought a lot of money into the region.

“I think there are thousands of people he’s helped,” White said.

‘A lot of victims’

Some of Conn’s former clients say there’s been too much attention on him and not enough on the difficulties they face. Several hundred people lost benefits after the Social Security Administration disallowed tainted evidence in their cases.

Donna Dye, of Floyd County, said her husband Tim, 50, a former coal miner, was among those who lost benefits. He had problems with his knees, neck and back after getting hurt on the job, she said.

Tim Dye was awarded disability benefits in 2011 with Conn’s representation, but he lost them in July 2016. Conn didn’t submit all her husband’s medical records, and he used evidence from a doctor that was thrown out because of suspected fraud, Donna Dye said.

Her husband is appealing, but his benefits haven’t been restored. Money has been a constant worry, Donna Dye said.

She said that to save money on water, she ran a pipe to a spring on the hill behind their house to get water for bathing, cleaning and flushing the toilet. She gets water from neighbors for cooking, and she uses small nightlights instead of regular light bulbs to save on electricity.

Dye said she has done odd jobs, including cleaning, and she has sold furniture and other items from their house, and her jewelry, to scrape by. Fearful that they will eventually lose their home, she bought a tent at a yard sale for $20. They would have lost the house already without help from her husband’s brother, she said.

Many others face hardships because of Conn’s actions, Dye said:

“There’s a lot of victims out there.”

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