LEXINGTON, Ky. – An eastern Kentucky disability attorney who masterminded the largest Social Security fraud in history has been sentenced to an additional 15 years in prison for fleeing the country in an effort to avoid prosecution.
Eric Conn pleaded guilty in 2017 to bribing doctors to falsify medical records for his thousands of clients and then paying a judge to approve their lifetime disability benefits. His plea agreement would have put him in prison for 12 years, but a few weeks before his sentencing Conn removed his electronic monitoring bracelet and dumped it along I-75 in central Kentucky. He led federal agents on a six-month chase that ended in December when he was caught outside a Pizza Hut in Honduras.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves sentenced Conn to an additional 15 years for his escape, meaning he is scheduled to spend 27 years in prison for defrauding the government of $500 million in disability benefits.
"I've made a lot of mistakes for a man who wanted to do a lot of good in my life," a shackled, shaggy-haired Conn, standing in blue flip-flops and a dark green jumpsuit, told the judge. "An apology can't right the wrongs that I've done, but I think it's a pretty good place to start."
Conn's actions led the Social Security Administration to temporarily suspend benefit payments for thousands of people in eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest regions in the country. At least one man killed himself after getting the notice in the mail, leading his grieving widow to sue the government in a case that was eventually dismissed. The Social Security Administration eventually reversed that decision, instead forcing those people to go to court to prove their disability benefits were warranted. That process is ongoing.
One of those clients is 70-year-old Guy Fluty. The Louisa, Kentucky, resident got to keep his benefits. But he said the Social Security Administration is trying to get him to pay back $206,000, a sum he is fighting in court. Fluty, who worked for 20 years for a coal company, said he was twice denied disability benefits before hiring Conn to be his lawyer. Fluty said he knew Conn's name because of a billboard near his home. He soon visited Conn's law office, a sprawling complex of connected mobile homes in eastern Kentucky that featured smaller replicas of the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty. But he never met Conn in person and said he did not know about his scheme.
"I wish to God I had never heard his name," he said. "He hasn't done anybody in eastern Kentucky any favors."
Also in court Friday was Sarah Carver, a former Social Security Administration employee who blew the whistle on Conn's scheme. Conn tried to have her fired by following her and filming her shopping on one of her days off. But he held up a newspaper from another date in the video, making it look like Carver was shopping during working hours.
Noting Conn's behavior toward Carver and others, prosecutor Dustin Davis scoffed at his apology in court, telling the judge Conn is "not worthy of belief. He has zero integrity."
But Carver said she believed Conn's apology is sincere and said it's more than she's ever gotten from the Social Security Administration. She said Conn could not have carried out his scheme without help from many others in the agency.
"There has been no effort to hold them accountable for their actions and there is no deterrent for this to happen in the future," she said.
Reeves awarded Carver more than $8,000 in restitution. She and former co-worker Jennifer Griffith were awarded $31 million in damages in a separate lawsuit. It's likely they won't receive all of that money. Their attorney says the women have an agreement with the federal government to be paid 25 percent from money recovered in the case, including the sale of Conn's assets.
This version corrects the year in which Conn pleaded guilty to 2017 instead of 2016.