LEXINGTON, Ky. — An eastern Kentucky attorney ran away last year because he did not want to go to prison for defrauding the government of more than $600 million in Social Security disability benefits. Instead, he was caught at a Pizza Hut in Honduras and on Monday pleaded guilty to three more charges that could add another 15 years to his 12-year prison sentence.
Eric Conn had already pleaded guilty last year to bribing doctors to falsify medical records for his clients and then paying judges to approve their lifetime disability benefits. It was a lucrative scheme for Conn, who made millions of dollars from thousands of clients in eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest regions in the United States.
When Conn's scheme unraveled, federal authorities suspended monthly benefits for about 1,800 people in eastern Kentucky. They later reversed that decision after a public outcry, but not before at least one person killed himself. Of those 1,800 people, about 53 percent kept their benefits. In February, the government notified another 1,965 people their benefits were also being reviewed. Some have sued to stop these reviews, and that case is still pending in federal court.
Monday, an unkempt Conn appeared in court wearing a green jumpsuit, shuffling to his place in shackles resting just above his lace-less, blue Nike sneakers. Conn hunched his shoulders for most of the hearing and appeared unable to stop shaking. At one point, U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves stopped the hearing and asked if Conn was OK.
"Yes. Just pain," Conn said, without elaborating.
It was a far different picture of Conn than he presented to eastern Kentucky residents, who knew him from his TV commercials as Mr. Social Security: A lawyer with swagger who drove a Rolls-Royce and was sought after by beautiful women. His law office in the mountains of Floyd County started with a double-wide trailer and expanded to include replicas of the Statute of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.
After Conn's escape, federal prosecutors brought back 24 criminal charges against him that would have carried more than 250 years in prison if convicted on all counts. But a plea agreement he signed Monday included just three charges: escape, conspiracy to defraud the government and retaliating against an informant. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Conn is scheduled to be sentenced on those charges Sept. 7.
The retaliation charge comes from an incident when Conn and federal Administrative Law Judge Charlie Paul Andrus tried to have a Social Security Administration employee fired. The employee, Sarah Carver, had reported some of Conn's illegal activity. Conn hired a former police officer to follow her. When that didn't work, he recorded video of Carver shopping on one of her days off. But he held up a newspaper from another date in the video, trying to make it look as if Carver was shopping during work hours.
Andrus was sentenced to six months in prison last year. He was released in March.
Even after the case against Conn is finished, the federal government might not be through with him. Plea agreements are often signs that a defendant is cooperating with an investigation in return for a lighter sentence. Last month, prosecutor Ann Marie Blaylock Bacon was added to Conn's case. Bacon works for the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, whose purpose is to oversee "the federal effort to combat corruption through the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials at all levels of government."
Prosecutors declined to comment after the hearing.