The log line for the Apple TV documentary “The Big Conn” is as follows: “Eric C. Conn was a lawyer living a little too large in eastern Kentucky…until two whistleblowers realized he was at the center of government fraud worth over half a billion dollars, one of the largest in U.S. history. And that was just the beginning.” The investigative documentary series is helmed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte.
The four-part investigative series had its World Premiere at SXSW and it will launch, globally, on May 6th. It is a fascinating look at a man who is described as “an evil Robin Hood” for securing Social Security Disability payments for his Kentucky and West Virginia clients in 30 days, at a time when the Social Security Administration was backlogged for 18 months. In the process, Eric Christopher Conn made big bucks and spent the money just as fast as he got it. His office employees document a globe-trotting habit of traveling for one week of every month to exotic ports of call such as Thailand, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Las Vegas. In many instances (16, at least) Eric would return to Pikesville, Kentucky with a brand-new bride.
The mind boggles merely at the concept of someone loony enough to marry 16 times. He can’t even keep his wives’ nationalities straight, but managed to list 5 United States citizens, 5 from Columbia, 1 from Vietnam, 1 from the Philippines, 1 from Ecuador and 1 from the Dominican Republic. (Later, he admitted that he might have forgotten one or two of his wives from foreign countries). The first thought that pops into your head is, “Who does that?”
The answer to that rhetorical question is given by one attorney involved in the case, who says: “You’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t have a moral compass. You can’t get mad at a snake for being a snake.” Trey Alford, an Assistant District Attorney who ultimately refused to give up on the case, described it as “the ultimate trifecta: bad lawyers, bad judges and bad doctors.”
Despite the heroic and persistent efforts of two honest Master Docket Clerks to blow the whistle on Eric’s high, wide and handsome shenanigans, it took over 6 years for anything to be done. Conn had made himself a Big Name in Appalachia, better-known than Ali or Elvis, with extensive use of billboards, television and other forms of advertising, and, even after he was accused of graft and corruption, clients flocked to his offices for his services because he guaranteed he’d get them a check within 30 days, and he usually did.
Con handled 1800 cases between 2006 and 2010 and the amount of fraud for the government that they would need to recover to break even was estimated at $2.62 billion, when you factor in the payments to applicants who were unqualified to receive them, over years of their dependence on the $900 a month to (in one case) $2,000 a month disability payments. The problem after the fall of Conn is that there were 1500 applicants, some of whom were genuinely deserving, but the Social Security Administration now had to solve the mess they had created for themselves by being completely indifferent to the reports that the whistle blowers, Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, had been making for years.
The lid was blown off the corrupt scheme when a “Wall Street Journal” reporter named Damian Paletta, who is now the economics reporter for the “Wall Street Journal” (and the author of a book about Donald Trump’s time in office entitled “Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History”) journeyed to Appalachia and did a story on the situation. Paletta is not unsympathetic to the legitimate disabled and was, himself, disabled as a youngster.
The message that comes through, loud and clear, is that the Social Security Administration did an extremely poor job of policing its own. Shame on them!
Secondly, the true heroes and heroines of the story are not recognized at all. They include whistle-blowers Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, various attorneys, including Ned Pillersdorf, Trey Aldorf, and “Wall Street Journal” journalist Damian Paletta.
Meanwhile, we can all ask whether the corrupt Judge Daugherty, whose alcoholism and arrest of his daughter set off the scheme in the first place was properly punished, when he ended up serving only a few months of a short (4 year) sentence.
The only one of the three (Dr. Atkins), characterized as a “whore doctor” during Congressional testimony, who refused to take a deal and went for a jury trial did worse than those who copped a plea. But did any of the three principals receive adequate punishment for such large-scale fraud?
To find out how they ended up, watch the four-part series premiering globally on May 6th with sections entitled: “Mr. Social Security” (#1); “United We Stand; Divided We Fall” (#2); “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” (#3) and the finale, which will spell out the sad end of this story of greed, corruption, incompetence and stasis.