Eric Conn invokes Fifth Amendment during 2013 hearing on disability fraud
Fugitive lawyer Eric C. Conn fled the country using a fake passport and help from someone overseas who has given him a job to support himself while on the lam, Conn told the Herald-Leader in an email exchange over the weekend.
Conn, once one of the top disability attorneys in the nation, flew to a country that doesn’t have an agreement to extradite people wanted for crimes in the United States, he told the newspaper.
The newspaper sought to verify Conn’s identity by asking him questions that only Conn was likely to be able to answer, including his Social Security number, which the newspaper obtained from a court document, and a specific detail about one of his marriages. He answered the questions correctly.
Conn’s attorney, Scott White, also said he has received emails from a person he thinks is Conn that originated from the same email address.
Many people thought Conn, who made millions representing people seeking federal disability benefits and had traveled widely, had money stashed overseas to live on after fleeing. The email said that wasn’t the case, however.
“The money I sent overseas was money that has long since been spent,” Conn wrote.
A person claiming to be Conn has sent the newspaper several emails since the lawyer absconded from home detention on June 2. Unlike the latest emails from Conn, it wasn’t possible to reply to those.
The FBI has said it thought that the earlier emails were either from Conn or from someone close enough to him to have intimate knowledge of his case and escape.
In response to a request for comment on whether the FBI thinks the emails from the new address are from Conn, a spokesman said Monday that the agency’s investigation is continuing.
“We are obtaining more evidence each day identifying how he fled, where he went, and who helped him escape,” said David Habich, general counsel for the FBI in Kentucky. “We will continue to pursue Mr. Conn if he does not turn himself in.”
Just over a week ago, the FBI said Conn was thought to still be in the United States. That doesn’t match what Conn said in emails over the weekend.
The FBI is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to Conn’s arrest.
Conn, 56, represented thousands of people in Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere in successful claims for Social Security benefits.
He pleaded guilty in March to submitting false medical information in his clients’ cases and to bribing federal administrative Judge David B. Daugherty to approve payments to his client.
Conn faced up to 12 years in prison. He was on home detention at his Pikeville house awaiting sentencing in July, and he was required to wear an electronic monitoring device on his ankle.
He spent much of June 2 in Lexington, preparing to testify against Pikeville psychologist Bradley Adkins, who was charged with signing false mental-impairment evaluations for Conn to use in cases.
That evening, Conn cut off his ankle monitor, threw it out beside Interstate 75 near the Newtown Pike exit and fled.
Conn had to surrender his passport after he was indicted in April 2016. An accomplice outside the country obtained a fake passport for him, the email said.
Conn said he used the passport to fly out of the United States the day after cutting off the monitor.
He would not say where he went, but he made a reference in one email to being on another continent.
“Don’t forget, thanks to my enforced ‘sabbatical’ at home, I now speak three languages,” Conn said, meaning he had time to learn a language while on home detention.
Conn said he was able to board a commercial flight without any significant problems.
He did not say where he caught a flight, although he did say he worked to misdirect authorities. For example, Conn said he used his credit card to buy a ticket to fly out of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, but he never intended to go there because of the likelihood that the FBI was monitoring his transactions.
He used a different, pre-paid credit card to buy a second ticket and used that one to leave the country, Conn said.
Conn’s flight and efforts by the FBI to catch him have generated a lot of media attention, but Conn said the escape wasn’t especially dramatic.
“If my leaving would have had more of a spy-like characteristic to it, I would be the first to say so. It would certainly make for a better story,” he said.
He said he had planned for some time to leave, and that required preparation. One key consideration was not asking for help from anyone left behind so they wouldn’t get in trouble, he said.
“I had to ask for help from an individual or individuals who were effectively immune from the government’s persecution,” Conn said. “Fortunately, I had previously made alliances with such individual or individuals.”
Conn didn’t provide any additional information about who helped him, except to say that the person has given him a job.
The only details he would provide about the job is that it doesn’t pay much but gives him a chance to support a cause he believes in, and is not a traditional legal job but involves writing.
Witnesses have testified that Conn sent money overseas at times during his career for various purposes, including to support girlfriends in Thailand.
However, that money was gone by the time he decided to flee, Conn said.
He also said he didn’t stash any cash overseas because he didn’t think he would be charged after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, W.Va., declined to prosecute him after years of investigation. That office had jurisdiction because appeals for Conn’s clients went to a regional Social Security office in Huntington, W.Va.
The U.S. Justice Department pursued the case with special prosecutors after prosecutors in West Virginia and Lexington bowed out.
Prosecutors obtained an indictment of Conn shortly before a five-year limit from the time Daugherty resigned in 2011.
After he was charged, financial constraints imposed by the court kept him from acquiring any significant amount of money, Conn said.
Conn said he wouldn’t be able to live outside the country indefinitely with the money he has, and that’s why he needed the job.
Conn’s attorney said in a court motion filed last week that he had sent Conn two court-approved payments in May totaling $11,550 to cover his living expenses and utility payments at his old office at Stanville, in Floyd County.
Conn’s monthly expenses included $1,500 for rent; $500 for food; $250 for vitamin supplements; $100 for a church donation; and $105 for the cost of electronic monitoring.
Conn also sought and received approval for a lump-sum payment of his remaining child-support obligation to his daughter, who turns 18 in September 2018. That totaled $25,500.
Under the court order, White made the child-support and other payments, including salaries for two remaining employees who were closing out Conn’s office, but the money for rent and office utilities went to Conn.
Conn said he used the $11,550 he received, plus about $2,000 more he had on hand, in his escape.
In his first email to the Herald-Leader on June 9, a week after Conn’s disappearance, the person claiming to be Conn laid out terms for his surrender.
They included a public statement from the FBI acknowledging that Conn fled because he thought it was unfair that Daugherty and another former federal judge convicted in his case, Charlie Paul Andrus, will receive less combined prison time than Conn.
Daughtery and Andrus pleaded guilty, and Adkins was convicted in a trial. They have not been sentenced.
One other surrender requirement in that June 9 email — which included terms identical to one that Conn’s attorney received — was a guarantee that Conn wouldn’t be charged with additional crimes for fleeing.
Conn said in his latest emails that he hadn’t surrendered because the FBI hadn’t accepted his terms.
“No, I do not presently plan on returning,” he said in response to a question.
White has urged Conn to turn himself in rather than spend a life looking over his shoulder.
“My experience has been that the feds generally get their man,” White said.
Conn said he considers himself a refugee because of how the government handled the case against him.
He cited as one reason the relatively short prospective sentences for Daugherty and Andrus.
He said he couldn’t elaborate on the other reason, but he charged that the case against him had remained active despite decisions by two federal prosecutors to not pursue an indictment because then-U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “used his political influence to keep it going.”
Coburn, who has since left office, pushed an investigation of what he called deficiencies in the Social Security Administration’s disability programs.
Findings on Conn and Daugherty released in October 2013 were one key result of the inquiry. The report laid bare the offenses covered in the federal indictment more than two years later.
In the latest emails, Conn reiterated a claim that there were other people involved in wrongdoing who haven’t been charged.
“Does anyone really think that it would have been possible for something of this scale, the largest Social Security fraud in U.S. history, to have occurred without the involvement of several others?” he wrote.