Prosecutors, defense attorneys and a courtroom full of spectators were on hand Friday for the sentencing of disgraced, fugitive lawyer Eric C. Conn, and there were rumors that the flamboyant Conn would return for a surprise entrance.
That didn’t stop U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves from sentencing Conn to 12 years in prison.
Reeves ruled that Conn skipped the hearing voluntarily, which allowed him to be sentenced in absentia.
The 12-year sentence was the maximum Reeves could impose on the two charges on which Conn pleaded guilty: stealing from the government through fraudulent disability claims and paying bribes to a Social Security judge.
But Reeves said the sentence did not adequately reflect the seriousness of Conn’s crime, which federal officials have said was the biggest fraud in the history of the Social Security program.
Reeves said Conn’s crime impugned the system that is supposed to help deserving disabled people.
“It did hurt the entire system and the reverberations are still occurring,” Reeves said.
The hearing was not without humor. When Conn’s attorney, Scott White, was discussing Conn’s absence, Reeves said, “There’s no evidence the Russians took him, right?”
Reeves ordered Conn to pay more than $100 million in restitution to Social Security and Medicare. The judge also ordered Conn to pay a judgment of $5.7 million to the U.S. Department of Justice and fined him $50,000.
Conn could face further prosecution. He was initially indicted on a total of 18 charges that could have resulted in a life sentence. All but two would have been dismissed under his plea deal, but Conn breached that agreement when he absconded on June 2.
Prosecutor Dustin Davis told Reeves on Friday that the other charges will remain in place.
Reeves said the government could prosecute Conn in his absence or wait until he is caught. Davis said federal officials have not decided how to proceed.
Conn, 56, was once one of the top disability lawyers in the country, representing thousands of people in successful claims for benefits from the Social Security Administration and making millions in fees.
In March, however, Conn admitted it was an enterprise built on fraud.
Conn outlined a massive, long-running conspiracy in which he put false evidence of clients’ physical or mental disabilities in their claims, paid pliable doctors to sign forms with little scrutiny, and bribed a Social Security judge who approved claims for thousands of Conn’s clients.
The judge, David B. Daugherty, who retired when he came under investigation in 2011, pleaded guilty to getting $609,000 in bribes.
Another Social Security judge, Charlie Paul Andrus, pleaded guilty to retaliating against a whistleblower at the agency who tried to expose wrongdoing by Daugherty and Conn.
A third person indicted with Conn and Daugherty, Pikeville psychologist Bradley Adkins, was convicted of signing fraudulent mental-impairment evaluations for Conn.
Daugherty, Andrus and Adkins have not been sentenced.
Conn was on home detention after he pleaded guilty, awaiting sentencing.
On June 2, he was in Lexington, with court permission, to meet with prosecutors and his attorney White about testifying against Adkins. That evening, Conn cut the electronic monitoring device from his ankle and fled.
His plea deal called for a 10-year sentence for stealing from the government and two years for bribing Daugherty.
At the hearing Friday, White asked Reeves to run the sentences on the two charges concurrently, meaning a total term of 10 years. White said Conn deserved the break because he had provided considerable assistance to prosecutors before he fled, giving them information about the crime and about Daugherty and Adkins.
Davis opposed the request.
Reeves noted that Conn hurt the case against Adkins by fleeing days before he was to testify, and said he did not deserve a break.
“He chose his path,” Reeves said.