An Eastern Kentucky lawyer has earned $22.7 million in attorney's fees from the Social Security Administration since 2001, in part through a lucrative "scheme" to defraud the agency's disability benefits programs, a U.S. Senate committee said in a report released Monday.
Eric C. Conn, 53, a Floyd County lawyer who calls himself "Mr. Social Security" in his colorful billboard and television advertisements, rigged medical records and steered hundreds of his check-seeking clients to an administrative law judge who rushed their cases through the system, according to a two-year investigation by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
The committee met Monday to hear from Conn and others, including two women who said they tried to blow the whistle on preferential treatment that Conn received from Judge David Daugherty at the Social Security Administration's regional Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Huntington, W.Va.
It was "a mass collusion between a judge and an attorney," testified Sarah Carver, a case technician at the agency's Huntington office.
Conn briefly sat before the committee but declined to give a statement or answer questions.
"I respectfully assert my constitutional right to not testify here today, sir," Conn said.
Also subpoenaed to appear, Daugherty was a no-show.
From 2005 to 2011, Daugherty approved the disability appeals that Conn requested in 3,143 cases and never denied one of his appeals, compared to a 60 percent approval rate for disability appeals nationwide. Conn was paid a portion of the monetary award given to each of his clients. Daugherty's career and income were boosted as he gained a reputation as one of his agency's fastest judges.
Daugherty and Conn's law office communicated about upcoming cases, and when Conn's clients randomly were assigned to other judges, Daugherty used his computer to reassign them to himself, Senate investigators wrote in their report. Daugherty sped Conn's cases to approval, sometimes not even holding the required hearing. Colleagues knew what the judge was doing but did not stop him, as evidenced by interviews and internal emails.
"The Eric Conn situation is going to bite this office in the butt one day," Carver, the Social Security case technician, warned her bosses by email at one point.
Testifying to the Senate committee on Monday, Carver said her superiors including her office's chief judge, Charlie Andrus teamed up with Conn to harass her after she started drawing attention to the situation. Among other things, a private investigator was hired to tail Carver and try to videotape her in incriminating acts, she testified.
"Shouldn't happen in America," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Carver.
Carver and a former Social Security Administration co-worker, Jennifer Griffith, filed a federal lawsuit against Conn and Daugherty in 2011 under the False Claims Act, which allows whistle blowers to get a portion of money recovered from cases in which the federal government was defrauded. That case is pending.
Daugherty retired in 2011, shortly after the Wall Street Journal detailed his relationship with Conn in a lengthy story.
In a review of Daugherty's personal bank records, Senate investigators said they identified $69,800 in cash deposits from recent years that the judge would not discuss with them and that could not easily be explained by his salary and his family's other assets and sources of income, which he was required as a public official to disclose.