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Rural Blog: Eastern Kentucky lawyer pleads guilty to defrauding the Social Security disability system

A Kentucky lawyer who labeled himself as “Mr. Social Security” pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to stealing from the Social Security Administration and bribing a federal Social Security judge.

Prosecutors say Eric C. Conn had “a long-running scheme to defraud the government of nearly $600 million in federal disability payments,” Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. Conn’s sentencing is July 14 and he faces up to 12 years in prison.

Eric Conn (Associated Press photo from Rural Blog)

“According to the plea, Conn participated in a more than decade-long scheme involving the submission of thousands of falsified medical documents,” Schreiner writes. “Those fraudulent submissions resulted in payment of more than $550 million in benefits.”

He continues: “Conn also admitted to paying the judge about $10,000 a month over more than six years to award disability benefits in more than 1,700 cases, according to documents filed with the guilty plea. Those payments were based on falsified medical documents, the documents said. Conn admitted that he received more than $5.7 million in representative fees from the SSA based on those fraudulent claims, the documents said.”

Conn started his law practice in a trailer in 1993 in his hometown of Stanville, building it to one of the nation’s most lucrative disability firms, Schreiner writes. “He became a local celebrity for his over-the-top advertising campaigns. He dispatched crews of ‘Conn Hotties’ to events and had a 19-foot replica of the Lincoln Memorial [statue] erected in the parking lot of his office.”

For years, Conn faced no legal consequences, even after the SSA “cut off disability payments to hundreds of his clients in the impoverished coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia,” Schreiner writes. “Conn’s clients have been fighting the federal government to keep their disability checks.”

Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney who is representing hundreds of Conn’s former clients who have sued in seeking damages from Conn, told Schreiner that the plea should help speed up consideration of the lawsuit.

“I’ve got to get these people money quick,” Pillersdorf said. “I’ve got 800 people going without, and it’s a real humanitarian crisis. His guilty plea should expedite that process.” But Pillersdorf told Schreiner that Conn’s guilty plea is unlikely to have an impact on those cases.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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