- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The federal government has reinstated disability payments to hundreds of Appalachian recipients whose checks were suspended after their attorney was targeted in a fraud investigation.

Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin announced Thursday that her agency had decided to lift the suspension.

The Social Security Administration suspended benefits last month to 900 people in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia who had been represented by attorney Eric C. Conn, who called himself “Mr. Social Security.” Conn was the target of a 2013 U.S. Senate investigation that concluded he schemed with doctors and a judge to push dubious disability claims through the system.

Conn has not been charged with any crime. His attorney, Kent Wicker, said the government concluded its investigation and declined to pursue criminal charges. Conn is still practicing law in Kentucky, he said, and is relieved that his clients will continue to get their checks.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said he urged the Social Security Administration on Wednesday to reconsider its decision to suspend the checks. “I was rather blunt that this was a matter of life and death,” Rogers said.

Three people whose payments were suspended are believed to have killed themselves, Rogers said, though he did not provide details and acknowledged the connection between the deaths and the disability payments is unclear. Another person had a nervous breakdown, said attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who led the charge to get the payments restored. Both Rogers and Pillersdorf said they were bombarded with phone calls from people afraid they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for their home, their meals and medications.

“The black cloud over this region has lifted,” Pillersdorf said. “This whole region has been consumed by this.”

The Social Security Administration said that the agency must re-determine eligibility where “there is reason to believe fraud or similar fault was involved” in the application. The agency is investigating 1,500 people Conn represented, including the 900 whose disability payments were reinstated and another 600 who received a different form of assistance.

The 900 disability recipients will now have to prove that they are indeed disabled and have been since the initial decision to award them benefits, the agency wrote in a statement.

Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called Conn’s clients “innocent bystanders,” who knew nothing about their attorney’s practices. For many of them, in counties already considered among the poorest in the nation, the disability checks were their family’s only form of income.

“It’s the old American idea that you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty, not vice versa,” Rogers said, in criticizing the government for cutting benefits without first offering recipients a hearing or opportunity to make their case for keeping them.

But the agency said it is entrusted by taxpayers to root out waste and corruption.

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