LOUISVILLE — Eric Conn, a disability attorney who fled the country after pleading guilty to orchestrating a scheme to defraud the federal government of $550 million, was apprehended in Honduras and is in FBI custody on his way back to Kentucky.
Conn had been missing since June, when he removed a GPS monitoring bracelet after pleading guilty to defrauding the Social Security Administration via bribes he paid to have his clients’ disability claims paid. He was working with a doctor and a judge to push the cases through; he was facing 12 years in prison and was ordered to pay more than $83 million in fines and penalties, but he now could face more charges and prison time.
El Heraldo, a Honduran newspaper, reported that a SWAT team arrested Conn in the coastal city of La Ceiba as he was leaving a Pizza Hut restaurant. Authorities there say they had been tracking Conn for weeks. FBI officials said Tuesday that Conn was arrested Saturday and is due to arrive in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday afternoon. Conn’s lawyer, Scott White, confirmed that Conn was in custody.
“It does appear from the reporting that Eric was taken into custody by some uniformed group in Honduras,” White said in a statement. “But, given the security situation in Honduras and the dangerous gangs operating there as has been reported as recently as the last few weeks in relation to its election, then who knows who these masked folks are, for whom they work, or if Eric has even been lawfully seized. Those may or may not be issues for either our courts or the Honduran courts.”
Jennifer Griffith, a whistleblower whose efforts helped lead to Conn’s conviction, celebrated on Twitter, saying that the photo of Conn surrounded by masked members of a Honduran SWAT team would be her Christmas card this year.
Griffith said Tuesday that she and colleague Sarah Carver “are relieved that Mr. Conn has been apprehended and hope that he not only serves the 12 years he has already been sentenced to but many more years. This man was given a far too lenient plea deal that shifted the blame from himself to others and has done everything in his power to avoid prosecution.”
Griffith and Carver worked at the Huntington, W. Va., branch of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and they began expressing concerns in 2005 about an administrative law judge and his relationship with Conn. That was around the time the SSA began using a paperless e-file system, which gave Griffith and Carver more data as evidence that something was amiss with the judge, David Daugherty, who had been approving applications for disability claims from Conn’s clients at a rapid rate.
The whistleblower concerns gained widespread attention in 2011, when the Wall Street Journal published a story about Daugherty that led the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations to hold hearings in October 2013.
Conn was indicted in April 2016, accused of orchestrating a scheme to defraud the U.S. government of more than $550 million. Conn pleaded guilty about a year later, acknowledging his scheme to defraud the government by bribing judges to approve bogus disability claims from thousands of claimants. Daugherty was sentenced in August to four years in federal prison for accepting $600,000 in bribes from Conn.
Out on bond and awaiting his formal sentencing, Conn cut off his ankle bracelet in June, put it into a pouch with a metallic lining meant to suppress electronic signals, and disappeared. While on the run, a person claiming to be Conn sent messages to members of the media and attorneys in Kentucky, apparently trying to dictate the terms of his surrender.
One of Conn’s former employees, Curtis Lee Wyatt, of Raccoon, Ky., was indicted in October, accused of buying a pickup for cash to aid in Conn’s escape, opening a bank account for Conn, and traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border in April to check the security situation at crossings in Nogales, Ariz., and Columbus, N.M. Wyatt pleaded not guilty to those charges.
As a lawyer, Conn took an unusual approach, using flamboyant television commercials that gained widespread notice throughout eastern Kentucky: one included a performance of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” with new lyrics all about Conn, referring to him as a “superhero without a cape” who “learned Spanish off of a tape.” In another, Conn used rap to reach out to the Hispanic market, claiming: “Even if you’re Latino, no need to worry cuz this gringo speaks the lingo.”
But he was just as well-known for his results: He was able to guarantee his clients would get their disability claims approved, preying on the residents of a depressed region — which includes nine of the 30 poorest counties in the nation — as the coal industry continued to hemorrhage jobs.
In an interview with East Kentucky Broadcasting, Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney for many of Conn’s former clients, said in a statement that he is concerned about them, many of whom were victimized as a result of the scam.
“More than 800 have lost their benefits,” Pillersdorf said. “He has done such great harm and it has been magnified by his outrageous antics. . . . He has just done so much harm to so many and on so many levels and hopefully this is the beginning of the end of this awful ordeal.”