FLOYD COUNTY, Ky (LEX 18) - Attorney Eric C. Conn was once known for his flashy commercials and billboards, advertising that he was Mr. Social Security. But since then, Mr. Social Security has fallen from grace and the path of damage left behind is immeasurable.
It was no secret that Conn lived a lavish lifestyle in Eastern Kentucky, but that all came crashing down when he pleaded guilty to social security fraud in a multi-million dollar scheme back in March 2017. Police say in June, Conn removed his ankle monitor and ditched it on I-75, beginning a six-month period on the run. His picture appeared on news outlets, garnering national and international attention as authorities searched for the attorney. Multiple news outlets, including the Herald-Leader, received faxes from someone claiming to be Conn. In those faxes, he outlined his terms of surrender. In July, the FBI released photos of Conn at a Walmart and gas station in New Mexico. During that time he was sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison.
Across the Commonwealth, all eyes were on the Eric C. Conn saga. But the long period of time provided more questions than answers. Lawyers and businesses across the Commonwealth even held betting pools on where the disgraced attorney was headed.
In October 2017, Curtis Lee Wyatt was arrested for allegedly helping Conn test border crossings and setting up bank accounts to help Conn escape. On December 4, 2017, a Honduran newspaper reported that Conn had been captured and the next day the FBI confirmed it. He had been captured in a Honduran Pizza Hut after connecting to the restaurant's wifi. He was extradited back to Lexington. Because he fled the country, federal prosecutors are now expected to repeal Conn's 12-year plea deal and charge him to the fullest extent of the law.
In the following month after his extradition, he revealed that he had long since run out of money and wrote a 42-page handwritten note to the Herald-Leader detailing his escape. His musings detailed everything from crossing into Mexico with the help of a dog, to getting into Honduras with the help of a "fake fiancee" he met on a bus.
And while the story may seem like something from a movie, the effects that the social security scheme had on Conn's former clients is very, very real. When he defrauded more than half a billion dollars from Social Security, it left more than just himself in trouble.
"Whether it's 10 people, or 1,490, many of them have legitimate claims and should've received disability benefits," said Conn's former attorney Scott White on the victims in the case.
Most of the people that Conn got disability benefits for were stripped of their checks, and it is due mainly to their involvement with Conn, even if their claims are legitimate. Their claims were immediately revoked, even if they weren't fraudulent. White says that they were seen as guilty by their association to Conn.
Ned Pillersdorf is an attorney who represents many of Conn's former clients.
"He's had a nationwide negative effect with his outrageous antics," Pillersdorf told LEX 18.
Conn routinely did not submit important medical records, because he didn't have to. Conn couldn't pull off a scheme this large by himself. He had a judge, David Daugherty, who helped him move more than 3,100 claims through, for a cut of the profits. He had a doctor, Dr. Bradley Adkins, who signed off on medical reports.
Daughtery is now serving four years for his involvement in the case.
"The only people who got rich on this are Eric Conn and Judge Daugherty. These people are trying to get by on $800-$900 a month. It's had a tremendous impact on Eastern Kentucky," said Pillersdorf. "I don't think there's any question, Eric Conn has done more damage to the legal profession than any lawyer in the history of this nation."
While Pillersdorf may be right about the damage this scheme has done to the legal profession, it pales in comparison to the damage it has done to the more than 1,500 victims.
LEX 18 spoke with Cheryl Martin of Dana in Floyd County. Martin is one of the 1,539 victims affected in this case. She is battling stage four lung cancer, but actually considers herself one of the lucky ones.
"They can't argue with me that I'm old," she said.
So when her disability benefits, which equaled about $1,000 a month, disappeared in the wake of this scandal, her social security kicked in to cover the difference.
"A lot of these people are a lot younger than I am, so they don't have that benefit," said Martin.
Without the benefits they were receiving, some people saw no way out. There were two people affected by this scheme who died by suicide, one of those was Emma Burchett's husband.
Burchett works for the Floyd County Chronicle & Times.
"We had no means to pay for his medication or go to the doctor," Burchett told LEX 18.
Despite Burchett's pleas not to, her husband stopped taking his medications. He then killed himself.
"Some of those medications, well, unfortunately, they are mind-altering," she said. "To stop taking them abruptly like that. Obviously, the ramifications were, horrific."
Pillersdorf tells LEX 18 that what bothers him the most in this entire situation is that Conn has failed to realize the horror of the situation, even as he scribbled his musings in a 42-page letter from prison.
"The lawyer, who for years advertised that he cared about these people, couldn't find the time to say one word in those 42 pages?" Pillersdorf said.
Scott White speculates that while Conn knew his scam was illegal, he possibly thought he was "doing right" by those in Eastern Kentucky.
"I think he feels badly for what he did, but he doesn't necessarily, and I'm speculating here, I don't think he feels that bad for the people that now claim their disability has been improperly taken away, because he did his job. He got them their disability," Conn's former attorney explains.
While Conn's actions could now land him in prison for life, it is undeniable that many of those left in his wake also received a life sentence of a much different kind.
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