Becoming ‘Mr. Social Security’: The bizarre story of fugitive lawyer Eric Conn
During the more than four-year sad spectacle involving Floyd County’s local embarrassment (Eric C. Conn) there have have been few humorous moments. During one of the oral arguments before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals I became frustrated -and told the Judges that “John Grisham could not have imagined these facts.”
The Judges found this amusing and laughed. I was not trying to be funny. The statement is true. The facts that have transpired will one day make a spell binding read worthy of those who enjoy Grisham novels. At least one book is in the works by a major author. One chapter will have to be devoted to the incredible saga of the client files that the attorney formally known as Mr. Social Security kept in his sprawling trailers along U.S. 23 in Stanville, Kentucky.
The first hint that something was amiss in the Eric Conn galaxy was the four-day bonfire. Shortly after the Wall Street Journal published an investigative report on Conn in 2011, those traveling along US 23 noticed a continuous bonfire.
Neighbors complained to Conn’s employees about the smoke. Conn told the staff it was time for spring cleaning. In reality the cleaning involved the burning of client files. A receipt from a shredding company also revealed millions of documents were shredded in reaction to the Wall Street Journal story as well.
A year before Conn was indicted, more than a thousand of his former clients received surprise notices over the Memorial Day weekend that their benefits were being immediately suspended. The shameful bureaucrats at the Social Security office graciously allowed those receiving the notices all of 10 days to retrieve medical records generated almost ten years ago. The SSA explained that the ancient medical evidence could be submitted to possibly allow the benefits to be reinstated.
In reaction two significant series of events transpired. Predictably at the 10-day mark we had two suicides. During the same time frame hundreds of former clients descended on Conn’s office in desperate hope of retrieving their files. Nobody got a file.
Conn was nowhere to be found. Of course, of the thousands of former Conn clients caught up in the debacle , you would be lucky to find a single client who actually met Conn. We all saw him on the hundreds of billboards, but never in person.
When Conn was indicted the next year, his law office was seized. When Conn eventually entered the first of his two guilty pleas there were references to the destruction of files, shredding etc. A predicable event happened after Conn plead guilty-he decided to cut off his ankle bracelet and leave it near the Newtown Pike exit on I-64 in Lexington.
Two weeks later or about the time Conn was entering Guatemala from neighboring Mexico on his way to Honduras-viewers of WYMT were treated to live video of dozens of law enforcement officers swarming Conn’s law office. It was carried live, with the cameras hoping to get a historic shot of Conn being dragged out from under his Lincoln Memorial monument.
Less excitement was occurring 15 miles away at the SSA hearing office in Prestonsburg. More than a thousand of Conn’s former Conn clients were being put through grueling re-determination hearings without their files. The common understanding among the former clients and the more than hundred volunteer lawyers was that the files had gone up in smoke or were part of the shredding operation. Nobody imagined there were still 7,000 client files still sitting in Conn’s office. The law enforcement officials who swarmed Conn’s office never got around to mentioning the 7,000 files.
After the first round of 1,550 hearings were held, the SSA, exuberant over the capture of Conn at a Pizza Hut in Honduras, announced in February of 2018 that starting in August of 2018, another 1,950 hearings would commence. In April I was sent a video of what appeared to be thousands of files still sitting in Conn’s law office. The video was also sent to the national media.
When contacted by the media, the powers that be grudgingly acknowledged that thousands of files were still in Conn’s office. With another round of hearings scheduled to start a few months later, urgent requests were sent to the Kentucky Bar Association (KBA) requesting the immediate appointment of a Receiver to promptly distribute the client files before the next round of hearings.
Two points about the request: It goes without saying that client files always belong to the clients. They don’t belong to Conn or the government.
More importantly, the hearings were all travel-back-in-time hearings and the files likely contained crucial evidence. A common misconception about the hearings is that they were focused on whether the client is presently disabled. Not true. The hearings were instead focused on whether the former client was disabled about 10 years ago. Logically what was in the files would be highly relevant in that the files were generated during the time frame the hearings were focused on.
To use a football term - the KBA punted and would not appoint a Receiver. The perfect storm of injustice followed. The hearings did start again in August. The SSA denied every request to continue the hearings until the files became available. We also learned that Conn routinely would not submit relevant medical records. He was going to win anyway.
Fortunately an attorney in the Department of Justice forfeiture division got fed up and filed a remarkable motion in Federal Court. He accurately alleged that the KBA had completely abdicated their responsibility in not appointing a Receiver and asked the Federal Court to appoint one. By the time the Federal court appointed a Receiver we learned that the files would not be distributed until December The hearings abruptly ended in early November after Congressman Hal Rogers intervened.
At that point,not a single Conn client ever had access to their files in the more than two thousand hearings. The second round has not restarted, presumably due to the hearings being declared unconstitutional a few weeks later after the Sixth Circuit rendered their decision in Hicks v Colvin.
This past June the last of the client files were delivered. In doing so we learned about a third of the files were still missing, a third were incomplete and a third were intact. And so ends the interesting journey of what became of the Conn client files. What did we learn from all of this? We did not learn that the system works. We did learn that the former Conn clients got shafted.
Ned Pillersdorf has been a partner in Pillersdorf, DeRossett & Lane since the firm’s creation in the 1980s. He just celebrated his 37th year of being an attorney and over that time has participated in over 400 jury trials. He received the pro bono award from the Kentucky Bar Association in 2017 ,primarily for his representation of many of the 1,500 former clients of Eric C Conn, and coordinating the efforts to find volunteer lawyers for more than a thousand former clients.