In early 2012, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott repeatedly drove to the Floyd County office of disability benefits lawyer Eric C. Conn, which is a chain of interconnected trailers along U.S. 23, fronted by a one-ton, 19-foot-tall statue of Abraham Lincoln.
Scott, who represents Eastern Kentucky on the high court, was on his way to raising $332,390 for a bruising re-election battle that fall. Conn was a multi-millionaire facing at least two federal investigations and a fraud lawsuit for allegedly rigging medical records and steering hundreds of his check-seeking clients to a judge who improperly approved their claims. A U.S. Senate committee spent five hours last week criticizing Conn's law practice at a nationally televised hearing.
The men thought they could be useful to each other.
Scott put Conn on his campaign committee and talked with him and two other lawyers in Conn's firm about money that they could raise for him, according to Scott himself and one of the other lawyers, David Hicks, who later spoke with investigators for the state attorney general's office.
In an interview last week, Scott said Conn initially approached him, not vice versa.
"They kept calling me and asking me, 'Please come by, we'd love to see you, we want to support you,'" Scott said. "I cannot turn my back on the people of Kentucky when I'm running for election."
After that conversation, Conn gave Scott's campaign $1,000, the maximum allowed by state law. So did one of Conn's lawyers, John Earl Hunt.
Then Conn tried to funnel $10,000 more to the campaign through $1,000 money orders under the names of 10 of his office employees. Conn got the money from a safe-deposit box at a Prestonsburg bank where he kept about $250,000 in cash, one of his employees, who accompanied him, told investigators.
The payments were coordinated by Kia Hampton, Miss Kentucky USA 2011, Hampton told investigators. Conn had hired Hampton for $70,000 a year as his public relations director and leader of his "Conn Girls," attractive young women who starred in his television commercials and public events.
"Mr. Will T. Scott, let me first say that (it) is an honor to be able to participate in your campaign," Hampton emailed Scott on Jan. 6, 2012. "Us at the Eric C. Conn law firm are very excited. Looking forward to meeting you next week!"
"Thanks, Kia. I'm just Will T.," Scott replied. "When I get over my sickness, tell Eric and John and all I'll stop by for a chat. I'd be embarrassed to get around them with my cough now."
Hampton told investigators that Scott came to Conn's office and gave her a batch of campaign envelopes to be used for donations. (Hampton added that she didn't know who Scott was, but she was instructed to help him.) Scott confirmed last week that he dropped off his campaign envelopes. They were pre-addressed to "Scott for Supreme Court" at the same post office box he lists as his Pikeville address on the court's website.
The Kentucky Code of Judicial Conduct, approved by the Supreme Court, prohibits judges and judicial candidates from soliciting campaign funds in person. The court has argued that, more than most politicians, judges are in a unique position to pressure people who might appear before them — especially lawyers. Judges and judicial candidates must appoint committees to request money on their behalf, keeping an arm's length between them and potential donors.
But Scott said he wasn't asking anyone at the Conn law office for money — he simply wanted their help raising money, and that's an important distinction.
"I don't go up and ask people for money, and I don't take money from people," Scott said.
Scott soon returned the donations to the Conn office employees at their individual homes. He explained in his signed letters that he could not accept money orders, only personal checks, and he invited them to attend an upcoming Pikeville campaign reception that would raise $53,425 for him.
Conn tried to get some employees to write personal checks to Scott's campaign using the returned money, but instead they kept it. Conn already had fired several of the workers — his office had a high turnover rate, employees told investigators — and he didn't try to retrieve the money from them. The scheme appeared to fizzle at that point.
Last week, Scott said he returned the money orders because he was suspicious. It seemed unlikely that 10 of Conn's employees, some of whom probably did not earn large salaries, simultaneously would give him $1,000 each, the justice said. He also removed Conn from his campaign committee, he said. In March 2012, after the attorney general's investigators questioned him about the money orders, Scott returned Conn's own donation.
"Every action on my part was honorable and professional," Scott said last week. "Had he been on the up-and-up, I would have been glad to keep him on the committee."
Giving campaign money under someone else's name — a "straw donation" — is illegal in Kentucky. Thanks to a whistle-blower in Conn's office, a woman who was supposed to be one of the straw donors, the attorney general began to investigate. Conn soon faced a Class D felony charge in Franklin Circuit Court, punishable by up to five years in prison and the automatic suspension of his law license.
Last month, Attorney General Jack Conway dropped the charge to a misdemeanor in exchange for Conn's guilty plea. Conn received a year in jail, conditionally discharged for two years. That means he did no time and kept his law license.
"Our office believes that the charge and the penalty in this case were appropriate considering the facts," Conway spokesman Daniel Kemp wrote in a prepared statement last week.
Scott was not charged because "there is no evidence Justice Scott was involved in the scheme, and once he received the attempted donation, he returned the money orders in question," Kemp wrote.
It's unclear why Conn risked so much to assist Scott. Conn refused to talk to the attorney general's investigators about the case. He referred the Lexington Herald-Leader last week to his attorney, Kent Wicker, who said, "That matter is closed as far as Mr. Conn is concerned, and we don't have any further comment on it."
Typically, Conn practices before administrative law judges at the Social Security Administration, where Scott holds no power. Scott had, at the end of 2011, written an important Supreme Court decision making it easier for black-lung cases to proceed through the workers compensation system, and Conn's firm has represented coal miners claiming damages from black lung disease. But Scott said Conn expressed no interest in that to him.
Melinda Martin, who was Conn's Social Security case supervisor, told investigators her boss was motivated by concern for his law license. The Supreme Court and its independent arm, the Kentucky Bar Association, can move to disbar attorneys for violations of ethics rules. Conn knew he faced multiple probes into the ethics of his disability benefits work.
"She said that Conn had told her they needed to be very nice to Scott because Scott could take his law license in a second," investigators wrote in their report.
Even without Conn's money, Scott managed to raise several hundred thousand dollars and soundly defeat his challenger, Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Janet Stumbo, in the fall election.