Monday, July 9, 2018

East Kentucky fraudster/lawyer Eric Conn leaves a trail of devastation among clients, as well as a great need for pro bono assistance

Some readers may have followed the story of Eric Conn, a major disability attorney in eastern Kentucky, who was indicted in 2017 on charges of defrauding the Social Security administration.  Conn fled house arrest in late 2017 (he cut off the ankle bracelet), only to be captured in Honduras and extradited to the United States.  Read more herehere and here.

An excerpt explaining who Conn is and what he did follow, this from Bill Estep's early June, 2018 story in the Kentucky Herald-Leader:
Conn admitted he took part in a scheme to submit fabricated evidence to Social Security on behalf of clients he represented seeking disability benefits. 
The scheme would have obligated Social Security to pay more than $600 million over the life of the beneficiaries, according to the charges. 
The agency actually paid out $72.5 million on the claims before the fraud came to light. Conn could be ordered to pay that much in restitution. 
He already owes millions in restitution in various cases, as well as a $5.7 million judgment to the U.S. Department of Justice that it has not been able to fully collect. 
Officials have said Conn’s scheme was the biggest fraud in the history of Social Security, involving thousands of cases.
Conn colluded with an SSI judge (who was paid $400/case), as well as medical professionals, to achieve the disability determinations.  Others involved in the scheme have already been tried and found guilty, or they have entered guilty pleas.

Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney in Prestonburg, population 3,255, has represented a number of Conn’s former clients in the wake of discovery of the fraud.  Pillersdorf speculates that not all of the clients had "legitimate claims," though many did.  The files of some clients included false evidence that the clients likely did not know about.

Estep quotes Pillersdorf, who makes a stunning revelation about the number of clients who had never even met Conn:
Unfortunately Conn's outrageous antics has [sic] resulted in the SSA politically posturing by targeting more than 3,500 of his vulnerable former clients with loss of benefits for the crime of guilt by association. The irony is there was no association—in that in my three-year involvement in this continuing crisis, I've yet to meet the first former Conn client who met him. 
This introduces the crisis that is unfolding for many of Conn's clients.  Here's what attorney Pillersdorf wrote in an op-ed in the Kentucky Herald-Leader in mid-June, on the occasion of the Kentucky Bar Association's Annual Meeting.  Pillersdorf writes of the current state of affairs re: Conn:
The Social Security Administration intends to put another 1,950 former clients of Conn — who pleaded guilty to fraud this month — through another set of grueling mass hearings. 
The first set of hearings have been brutal, in that more than 800 of the 1,500 hearings resulted in our neighbors losing their subsistence benefits and being told they each had to pay back about $100,000 for alleged over-payments. We’ve had suicides, attempted suicides, panic attacks, spikes in homelessness, etc. The new round of hearings is equivalent to a nuclear bomb hitting the mountains. 
The challenge throughout this ongoing humanitarian crisis is that the SSA prevents lawyers from earning attorney fees for doing the hearings. Indeed accepting a fee can have negative consequences for your ability to practice before the SSA. We have been blessed in the first round of hearings that we found more than 100 volunteer lawyers to represent more than 1,000 former Conn clients. 
Without being asked, should the powers that be in the Kentucky Bar Association have contacted the volunteer lawyer network and asked what they could do to help? It is an interesting question. 
Regardless, we did not wait for them to ask. We requested, and thanks to KBA President Bill Garmer, we have been granted a session at this week’s convention to train and recruit lawyers. This is the good. 
The not-so-good is the reaction of the bar to the recent stunning revelation that thousands of former client files still sit in Conn’s law office that was seized a year ago. The association has the discretionary authority to request that the Supreme Court appoint a special commissioner to distribute the files to the clients prior to mass hearings. The response to our request for such an appointment was that we need to make other arrangements. So much for looking out for the rights of the least among us in their time of crisis. 
I can’t help but think that the unwillingness to assist the former clients was fueled by negative stereotypical views about those who collect Social Security benefits as well as their unfortunate association with the notorious Conn.  [On that theme, read more here]
Indeed, it is not only disabled folks in Eastern Kentucky who are subject to negative stereotypes.  The region is one of the most densely persistent poverty region in the nation, perhaps second only to the Mississippi Delta, as illustrated by this map.

And I, for one, have come to conclude that we have no more empathy--and perhaps less--for poor whites than for poor Blacks.

An e-mail plea that recently went out via a Kentucky lawyer friend of mine reads:
I am writing you as the past Director of Appalred in Kentucky, and of counsel to a local Prestonsburg, KY firm (Pillersdorf, De Rossett and Lane).

I am writing for volunteer attorney help. 
You may remember that local attorney Eric Conn has pleaded guilty to engaging in a fraudulent scheme with ALJ Daugherty to approve several thousand applications for Social Security Disability benefits. As a result, all the affected individuals were/are being noticed for hearings to review their disability status. In the first round we (Appalred, NOSSCR, and various other helpers) recruited 153 volunteer attorneys around the country to help these claimants with their hearings. The hearings were conducted by video. It was a huge effort. Appalred took over 200 of these cases. And several attorneys took 25 or more. About half of the claimants “won” their hearings and so about half lost. The “win” percentages of those who were represented was substantially higher than those who were not. 
The “first round” of these hearings involved about 1900 cases. The SSA has announced that there will be about 2000 more in Round 2 . We are hopeful that the lawyers who helped us in Round 1 will help in Round 2, but there is a fair amount of work involved in preparing these cases, so some of the lawyers may drop out. Additionally, there is currently an appeal pending in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals which challenges the limitation on the evidence that was permitted to be introduced at the hearings. Based on the reaction of the Judges at the oral argument, we feel somewhat confident that the appellants (our clients) will win and that this will result in a remand of several hundred cases for new hearings, so the lawyers who handled those hearings the first time around will have plenty to do. 
There are Training Videos on the Appalred website, (Legal Information and social Security tabs) 
The result is that we need your help in recruiting more volunteer lawyers for the next round of hearings, currently slated to start in July and August, and to continue on probably throughout the next year or so. I will be glad to talk with any of you to discuss this further, and to obtain your suggestions for how to recruit more lawyers successfully. Or you can contact Appalred’s Pro Bono Coordinator, Mary Going, directly by calling 606-886-3876 Ext. 1315, or by email, or with me by phone at (606) 886-8851 (preferred); 606-422-4484 (cell); or e-mail, Thanks in advance. John Rosenberg
If this doesn't illustrate the need for more rural lawyers generally, as well as good rural-urban attorney networks, then I don't know what does.  Here is my prior post on that very topic.

No comments: