By COURTNEY HESSLER
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Officials say “Mr. Social Security” Eric Conn, who had been named as one of America’s most wanted federal criminals after he escaped custody in June before his sentencing, was en route to the United States on Tuesday after his stay in Honduras abruptly ended Saturday with his arrest.
The news was welcomed by people who had sought Conn’s help in obtaining Social Security disability benefits and later found that he was part of a $550 million Social Security fraud scheme, which is the largest fraud case in the history of the Social Security program.
A Honduras public magistrate’s office reported Conn was arrested Saturday by the country’s Technical Agency for Criminal Investigation, or ATIC, and a SWAT unit as he was leaving a Pizza Hut in La Ceiba, a city of about 200,000 that borders the Caribbean Sea, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in Central America.
Amy Hess, special agent of the FBI field office in Louisville, Kentucky, said at a press conference Tuesday that Conn was expected to land at the Lexington Bluegrass Airport between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Media in that area reported he landed just before 7:30 p.m.
Conn had gained clientele through his high success rate and public relations campaigns deeming himself “Mr. Social Security” in his Pikeville, Kentucky, law practice, which he opened in a trailer in 1993. His fame grew through catchy commercials and props like small-scale replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.
Conn’s capture was cheered by his former clients and their families, who have struggled to make ends meet while fighting to keep their Social Security disability checks, The Associated Press reports.
“That’s wonderful,” said Donna Dye, whose husband was among Conn’s clients in Appalachia. “I never thought they would catch him. He let people like my husband have trust in him, and he let that down.”
His attorney, Scott White, pleaded with Conn to turn himself in since his escape.
“If in fact Eric has been lawfully captured and is legally returned, then … this comes as no surprise. The FBI usually gets their man,” White said in a statement.
Conn spent most of 2017 as the United States’ most wanted man after he escaped home confinement on June 2, a month before he was scheduled for sentencing in a federal court in Lexington, Kentucky.
According to Hess, the FBI’s top agent in Kentucky, Conn put his electronic ankle monitor inside a pouch with a metallic lining meant to suppress electronic signals, authorities said.
The FBI held a press conference soon after releasing two photos that it said showed Conn buying food and water at a gas station in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and pushing a bike at a Walmart in Deming, New Mexico.
The Lexington Herald-Leader also reported soon after that a person claiming to be Conn said he fled the U.S. using a fake passport, escaping to a country that does not have an extradition agreement with the U.S. Honduras has had an extradition treaty with the United States since 1928.
Prior to his escape, Conn had pleaded guilty in March to stealing from the government and bribing a Social Security judge in the Huntington office of the Social Security Administration.
Conn’s escape led to a new indictment naming a fifth co-conspirator who faces charges of aiding Conn in his escape. Curtis Lee Wyatt is accused of assisting Conn by assessing security checkpoints at the Mexican border and purchasing a truck Conn later used to escape home confinement.
An employee had opened a bank account Conn used to transfer money as well.
The pair is scheduled to go to trial on those charges Feb. 12, 2018.
Dozens of agencies were involved in the capture, Hess said.
Hess said numerous friends and family members of Conn’s were interviewed, along with several searches of his home, vehicle, financial accounts and even his mother’s home. They also reviewed emails and social media accounts belonging to Conn.
“As I explained in the last press conference,” she said Tuesday, “I said we would bring all available resources to find Mr. Conn and bring him to justice to hold him accountable for the lives he impacted and the trust he betrayed.
“As promised, he will now be held accountable for his actions, the people he deceived and the lives he shattered, including all of the victims of his greed in Eastern Kentucky,” she later added.
Former Huntington-based SSA administrative law judge David Black Daugherty would seek out pending disability cases claimants represented by Conn and assign the cases to himself.
From 2004 to 2011, Conn solicited Dr. Alfred Bradley Adkins, 46, to sign medical evaluation forms his office had previously prepared, without reviewing or even evaluating claimants, according to criminal complaints. Adkins received $350 for each approval. Conn subsequently sent the forms to Daugherty, who in turn approved the claimants’ requests for disability.
Their scheme obligated SSA to pay more than $550 million in lifetime benefits to claimants. Of at least 3,149 disability cases filed by Conn, more than 1,700 have been deemed fraudulent by government investigators.
At one time, Daugherty was approving benefits at a 99.7 percent rate, while the national average was below 70 percent. A congressional report showed Daugherty awarded $2.5 billion in lifetime benefits to Conn’s clients and others during his final years on the bench.
Conn paid Daugherty more than $609,000 for granting benefits and nearly $200,000 to Adkins for signing the forms. For his part, Conn received more than $7 million in attorney’s fees.
But that soon came to a stop after whistleblowers helped investigators uncover the scheme.
Whistleblowers and other victims
Sarah Carver, Jennifer Griffith and Conn’s employees testified before the U.S. Senate on the mismanagement and fraud within the Social Security Administration’s regional office along 9th Street in Huntington in 2013.
By early 2012, then-Administrative Law Judge Charlie Andrus and Conn were working together to stalk and target Carver to expose her as an inattentive employee who abused work-at-home time. The two hired a private investigator, who Carver said harassed her for several months.
The conspirators then fraudulently edited audio and video together to make their case.
Carver previously said to The Herald-Dispatch the investigator appeared at Conn’s plea hearing with the defendant and she still fears similar harassment in her life.
Attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represents hundreds of Conn’s former clients who have sued for damages, has said Conn created a “real humanitarian crisis” since the incident was uncovered in 2014.
The SSA has since identified about 1,700 beneficiaries, mostly eastern Kentuckians, who could receive hearings to determine if the benefits considered part of Conn’s scheme should be reinstated. As the hearings continue, about 800 have lost their benefits. About 50 to 60 are West Virginians, Pillersdorf said.
Pillersdorf said the area had about “800 desperate families” in March.
“With his capture, I’m hoping we can get this ordeal behind us, put him in prison where he belongs and start to undo the damage he has done to his former clients,” Pillersdorf said to the AP on Monday night.
Despite his absence last summer, Lexington-based U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves of the Eastern District of Kentucky sentenced Conn to 12 years in federal prison, the maximum allowed. Conn was also ordered to pay more than $100 million in restitution to Social Security and Medicare, along with $5.7 million to the U.S. Department of Justice. He also received a $50,000 fine.
As part of his plea deal, all other charges naming Conn in the indictment were to be dismissed, but that has not yet happened since his escape was a violation of the plea agreement.
Daugherty, 81, was sentenced in August to a four-year federal prison sentence and to repay more than $93.8 million in restitution to the government agencies.
Andrus, 67, who admitted to retaliation against an office whistleblower, was sentenced to serve six months in prison.
Adkins, 46, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire frauds, one count of mail fraud, one count of wire fraud and one count of making false statements. He was sentenced to 25 years behind bars and more than $93 million in fines to be paid to the Social Security Administration and other agencies. He was also ordered to forfeit $187,600 in fees.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.
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