Eric C. Conn, the convicted ringleader of the biggest Social Security disability fraud in history, was supposed to be sentenced Friday. Instead, he’s on the run, and the two whistleblowers who helped expose his scam say they fear for their safety.
Conn cut his ankle bracelet in early June and has evaded the FBI ever since, including seemingly taunting agents in repeated missives to newspapers and TV stations in Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as The Washington Times.
A man purporting to be Conn said in the messages that he’s escaped the country, leaving behind a legal mess, hundreds of people who had been kicked off the disability benefits he helped them obtain, and the two frightened whistleblowers who helped expose the fraud.
“We both have serious concerns,” said Jennifer Griffith, a former master docket clerk at the Social Security office in Huntington, West Virginia, where Conn’s scam took place. “I don’t know if he would come after us, but he was stupid enough to do it once. He was stupid enough to follow Sarah.”
That would be Sarah Carver, the other whistleblower, who Conn had followed by his muscle in an effort to intimidate her, and to try to discredit her as a witness against his scheme.
Conn pleaded guilty earlier this year to the fraud, which saw him file nearly 1,750 bogus disability applications. He paid doctors and a psychologist to write false medical evaluations, and paid off a Social Security administrative law judge to rubber-stamp the applications.
His fraud exposed major holes in Social Security’s system. Judges were under pressure to cut a backlog in disability cases, so pushing through more than 1,000 cases a year didn’t raise any alarms. And judges were able to assign themselves cases, allowing the kind of shady deal Conn says he struck with David B. Daugherty, the administrative law judge who was on his payroll, and who has also pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme.
“The ability of the agency to hold administrative law judges accountable is significantly limited,” Ms. Griffith told The Washington Times this month, looking back at lessons she says the agency should have learned from the scam. “Social Security tends to avoid dealing with that. They tend to try and just — unless there’s outside pressure due to some reasoning, either investigation or something becoming public — they tend to not want to address it.”
Blowing the whistle was also a problem, Ms. Carver said. When she first reported on some 50 Conn cases that had been approved by Daugherty, all in the span of two days, some just minutes apart, she was the one who took heat.
“I was called in for an investigation for why I had time to write that email,” she said.
The manager who ignored her warnings has since been promoted — twice. Ms. Carver said that same manager also knew Conn had hired a private investigator to follow her, but never told her.
Social Security refused to tell The Times whether anyone had faced discipline, saying it doesn’t discuss those matters publicly.
The inspector general’s office has released reports saying the Huntingdon hearing management team was replaced. That was part of a broader 2013 report reviewing how disability offices were performing.
Still, the inspector general has released no reports dealing specifically with the Conn fraud. Ms. Carver says what reports there are, they’re still sealed.
“To this date Social Security has not recognized us as whistleblowers,” she said. “Them recognizing us as whistleblowers means they have to acknowledge they knew about this as early as 2005 and chose to ignore it.”
Former Sen. Tom Coburn, who led the congressional investigation into Conn’s scam, said the whistleblowers should be praised for “sacrificial leadership,” but lamented that his former colleagues in the Senate haven’t followed up.
“Unfortunately, most senators are not interested in tough oversight,” he said.
Nobody from Social Security has ever testified to the Senate specifically about the scam, the whistleblowers said.
The one hearing that included testimony from Ms. Griffith, Ms. Carver and Conn came in October 2013 — in the middle of that year’s government shutdown. Agency officials said they couldn’t testify because of the shutdown.
Conn’s escape has been a black eye for the government — particularly since there were so many warnings that he would flee. He himself told colleagues he would run, he had been a frequent international traveler, and he had cash stashed everywhere, said Ned Pillersdorf, a lawyer in eastern Kentucky who’s taken on the cases of a number of Conn’s clients.
Before his trial, the government had asked that Conn be held, but a judge set a high bail. Conn paid it. Then, after Conn pleaded guilty, Mr. Pillersdorf was certain the government would try to hold him. It didn’t happen.
“The idea that Eric Conn would voluntarily show up knowing he was going to get 12 years is just preposterous,” Mr. Pillersdorf said.
He said Conn is likely to beat the cops and remain on the run for years.
“It took 16 years to find Whitey Bulger. Conn’s smarter than Whitey Bulger,” Mr. Pillersdorf said. When he applied for a job 25 years ago he told me he was a member of Mensa. That was on the resume he gave me.”
After Conn’s escape, the FBI resorted to asking reporters to share his purported messages with them, hoping to hone in on his activities. In a press conference last month the FBI seemed to suggest it was nearing charges on Conn associates believed to be assisting him.
The FBI declined to comment on the case this week to The Washington Times, saying it would instead have a statement Friday.
Meanwhile many of Conn’s clients are trying to get their benefits restored from Social Security, and are trying to make a malpractice claim against Conn. Mr. Pillersdorf is representing many of them.
Some 700 people have had their benefits restored, but 800 have had them cut off.