He called himself “Mr. Social Security” — a disability lawyer whose parking-lot replica of the Statue of Liberty and sophomoric ads helped make his rural practice one of the best known in Kentucky.
The government, on the other hand, simply calls him by his name: Eric Conn. It appears again and again in court documents surrounding Conn’s guilty plea earlier this year to bribing a judge and helping to defraud the government out of $600 million in disability claims.
Conn’s name also appears on an arrest warrant issued recently, after he disappeared before he could be sentenced and forced to repay tens of millions of dollars.
“It was totally predictable,” Ned Pillersdorf, a lawyer who helped Conn’s former clients win a class-action lawsuit for which he will also owe damages, told the Associated Press. “There has been a betting pool going on in Prestonsburg on not if he would flee, but when.”
Indeed, an FBI agent and other witnesses had urged a judge not to grant Conn bond after his arrest last year, according to the Courier-Journal. The lawyer had spoken of plans to flee the country, they warned, and may have stashed away cash.
In the preceding decades, he’d made plenty of it.
In business since the 1990s, Conn “worked out of an office complex made of five connected mobile homes in Floyd County,” the Lexington Herald Leader reported.
Those modest facilities hardly suggested the 56-year-old lawyer’s reputation, which had spread across much of eastern Kentucky even before his legal troubles began.
He was, the website Kentucky for Kentucky once wrote, “the most ridiculous lawyer in a land of ridiculous lawyers.”
Conn once hired a Miss Kentucky USA to be his public relations director for $70,000 a year, the Herald Leader reported. He had a crew of “Conn Hotties”— women in tight T-shirts printed with the firm’s 1-800 number, whom he sent to public events, according to the Associated Press.
The lawyer explained to the Courier Journal that he hoped the video would persuade President Barack Obama to appoint him to the Social Security Advisory Board, despite his flamboyant public image.
“I’m a traditional, boring lawyer,” he said, “who conforms, of course, to all the rules and regulations of the bar.”
This was not true.
Between 2005 and 2015, the Herald Leader reported, the Social Security Administration had paid Conn’s firm $23 million.
In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that a local judge appeared to be rubber stamping hundreds of disability claims for Conn’s clients.
A years-long federal investigation ensued — until Conn, the judge and a psychologist were brought up on federal charges last year.
Federal investigators accused Conn of bribing the judge and the doctor to approve his clients’ claims based on fake evidence, according to the Associated Press. They allegedly bilked the government out of nearly $600 million.
The charges brought his law empire crashing down, and at least two of Conn’s clients committed suicide after the government threatened to cut off benefits to all of them, according to the Herald Leader.
After his arrest, government witnesses warned that Conn was a flight risk.
According to the Courier-Journal, they testified that he had spoken of leaving for Ecuador or Cuba, and may have had at least a quarter-million dollars in cash in a safe-deposit box.
But the judge called the testimony hearsay, had Conn’s passport confiscated and ordered his release — secured by his $1.5 million mansion in Pikeville, an electronic monitor, and a defense lawyer’s assurances that his teenage daughter and elderly mother would dissuade him from fleeing.
“Your trust is not misplaced,” Conn told the judge, according to the Herald Leader.
And for a while, it seemed not to be.
In March, the Associated Press reported, Conn pleaded guilty to stealing from the government and bribing a judge. He agreed to pay more than $50 million in reimbursements, damages and penalties to the government and Social Security employees who helped expose him.
Next month, he was supposed to return to court for sentencing — facing the prospect of repaying millions while serving up to 12 years in prison.
But on Saturday, the FBI told the Associated Press that Conn had removed his monitoring device and disappeared.
This was stunning,” Conn’s lawyer, Scott White, wrote to The Washington Post. He said he last saw his client on Friday, and had seemed intent on testifying at a hearing next week.
“He gave every indication he both appreciated that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and he was able to make some amend for his admitted criminal conduct,” White said. “Now, he is just seen as the guy who took the coward’s way out.”
With his law practice shuttered and his whereabouts unknown, Conn’s commercials are about all that’s left of his public image.
In one ad, posted to YouTube shortly after his legal crisis began, the embattled lawyer parks his Rolls-Royce in front of his Abraham Lincoln statue and walks past a woman in an open-chested coat.
She calls out to him: “Eric, we need you back.”
Conn turns and assures her in a gravelly voice: “I never left.”