How one fugitive lawyer's scheme shut down disability benefits for nearly 1,600 clients

iStock/Thinkstock(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Robert Martin, a father of two from Eastern Kentucky, said he once earned around $70,000 as a truck driver. But now he says he struggles to make ends meet after filing for bankruptcy because of the fallout from a sprawling and complex legal case involving his former disabilities lawyer, Eric Conn.

On March 24, Conn pleaded guilty to one count of theft of government money and one count of payment of gratuities in a scheme to defraud the Social Security Administration of $550 million, according to the Department of Justice. Conn was due to testify in the trial of a co-conspirator during the week of June 5 but instead cut off his GPS ankle bracelet and fled, according to the FBI.

Now, as the FBI searches for Conn, many of his former clients, including Martin, find themselves in a tough place. Martin is among roughly 800 of Conn’s 1,557 former clients who are still fighting to have their disability benefits restored following the massive fraud case, according to their lawyer, Ned Pillersdorf. And the reason Martin’s benefits have not been restored is because Conn burned the actual medical documents that were critical to his case in a bonfire, according to Martin and Pillersdorf.

As part of his plea agreement, Conn admitted to falsifying medical records on behalf of his clients and destroying real ones. His attorney, Scott White, said Martin’s accusation that Conn burned medical records could have merit; White said Conn had set fire to documents after learning he was being investigated.

Martin told ABC News that he knew nothing of Conn’s reputation, his previous legal struggles or his book The Social Security Code: Cracked, when he sought his services in 2008 after suffering a back injury on the job.

He said he never personally met Conn and instead dealt with the employees of Conn’s law firm. Nowadays, Martin, who said he has also battled colon cancer since 2012 and whose wife also suffers from cancer, said he thinks about what he would say to Conn in person all the time.

“I think I would say to him: How can you sleep at night, knowing that your actions have negatively affected the lives of so many people?” Martin said.

Martin feels angry, he said, and worries that the sprawling magnitude of Conn’s fraud case — which has affected the lives of people living in a part of the country that suffers from endemic poverty — simply hasn’t gotten enough national attention.

“A man steals $550 million from the government and it’s not really huge national news — that’s amazing to me,” Martin told ABC News. “To me, that this is not a bigger deal to people is just a big ol’ kick in the a—.”

Lawyer on the run

Eric Conn, 56, once called himself “Mr. Social Security” and was known throughout Eastern Kentucky for his occasionally bizarre, over-the-top advertising campaigns, and his record of wins in the courtroom.

Close to 20 percent of residents in Floyd County, where Conn’s law firm was based, live in poverty, and more than one in 10 people under the age of 65 are disabled, according to recent Census data. Those demographics are part of what helped to make Conn one of the most well-known disability lawyers in the country, Pillersdorf said.

His business came crumbling down, however, when he pleaded guilty to defrauding the Social Security Administration on March 24 through a combination of bribing judges and using falsified medical records on behalf of his clients. According to Pillersdorf, Conn used these falsified records even when clients — like Martin — had a legitimate reason to receive disability payments.

According to the plea agreement, Conn must pay more than $5.7 million to the federal government and reimburse the Social Security Administration more than $46 million.

Conn was under house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor as he awaited his sentencing in July, according to the FBI. He was scheduled to testify in the trial of a co-conspirator during the first week of June, but instead removed his ankle bracelet and fled, the FBI said.

He escaped on June 2, and the ankle monitor was found beside the road in a backpack on I-75 in Lexington, Kentucky, according to the FBI.

A federal arrest warrant was issued for Conn by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on June 3.

Former clients struggle to collect $31 million

Pillersdorf now also represents Conn’s ex-clients in a civil case against him, and on June 16, those former clients were awarded a $31 million judgment against Conn. But they have no way of collecting the money, largely because the fugitive lawyer still can’t be found, according to Pillersdorf. Conn’s current net worth is unknown.

A man claiming to be Conn has been in touch with a local newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, since disappearing.

The newspaper said it asked the man claiming to be Conn a series of questions to determine his identity, including his Social Security number, which the newspaper obtained from a court document, and a specific detail about one of his marriages, the Herald-Leader reported.

The paper also reported that the man with whom they spoke said he had used a fake passport and fled to a foreign country that “doesn’t have an agreement to extradite people wanted for crimes in the United States.”

In an email to the Herald-Leader on June 9, the person claiming to be Conn offered the terms of a potential surrender to federal authorities. Those terms included a public statement from the FBI acknowledging that Conn fled because he thought it was unfair that the other parties with whom he colluded would receive less combined prison time than he would, the paper reported.

ABC News attempted to reach Conn through his lawyer for this story, but he did not respond to our request for comment.

‘Just a big ol’ kick in the a—’

Martin said Conn’s name was given to him by a doctor who advised him to seek disability assistance while recovering from a debilitating back injury he received on the job.

Originally from Kentucky, he said he only returned to the state after his father died — one of the factors that led him to meet Conn, a moment in his life Martin said he now deeply regrets.

Pillersdorf told ABC News that Martin’s story is not unique and that many of the people Conn represented had no way of knowing that he was committing fraud until after the fact.

“A lot of his clients were really disabled,” Pillersdorf said. “This area has some of the most impoverished people in the country. Eastern Kentucky is just extremely, extremely poor.”

Pillersdorf claimed that two of Conn’s former clients, Melissa Jude and Leroy Burchett, committed suicide in the aftermath of the fraud case. Pillersdorf represented both families in a lawsuit against the government, claiming that the move by the Social Security Administration to end their disability checks played a role in their deaths.

The lawsuit against the government was dismissed in the aftermath of the suicides, but there is a second lawsuit pending against Conn, Pillersdorf said.

ABC News reached out to Jude’s and Burchett’s families for comment. Burchett’s family did not immediately respond, and Jude’s family declined to comment.

Benefits delayed

Tim Dye, a former coal miner living in Floyd County, Kentucky, is among the roughly 700 former clients who have won back their disability payments after being represented by Conn. But his wife, Donna Dye, told ABC News that her husband will not likely see any money for over a year.

Pillersdorf told ABC News that it’s unclear to him why Tim Dye, as well as other clients of his, failed to receive disability payments even after winning the right to have them restored.

Mark Hinkle, a press officer for the Social Security Administration, told ABC News that the agency has been re-evaluating the disability status of some of Conn’s ex-clients.

“If, after conducting a redetermination, we determine that there is insufficient evidence supporting entitlement to benefits, we may terminate benefits,” Hinkle told ABC News via email.

“As of June 8, 2017, 1,489 cases have received a decision from an administrative law judge,” Hinkle said. “Of those, a little over 45 percent have received favorable or partially favorable decisions, and 54 percent have received unfavorable decisions.”

Hinkle did not comment on why the restoration of Tim Dye’s payments has been delayed.

Donna Dye said her husband sought government assistance after sustaining injuries to his lower back and neck related to his work in the coal mining industry. She said they went to Conn for help because his name was among several options for legal assistance listed in a handout that was given to them by their local Social Security office.

“We didn’t know anything about the government investigating Conn,” Donna Dye said. “No way would we have gone to him if we had known that.”

Donna Dye said she cleans houses now to make ends meet.

“It’s a terrible strain right now,” she said. “I’m trying to put everything on me as far as bills are concerned.”

Pleas for Conn to turn himself in

While the Dye and Martin families wait for their checks to arrive, Conn’s lawyer said he believes Conn may have contacted him while on the run.

White, Conn’s lawyer, told ABC News he has attempted to verify the identity of the man purporting to be his client by emailing him questions, much like the Lexington Herald-Leader had.

“I have been exchanging emails with him for two-and-a-half weeks,” White said. “I’m 99.9 percent sure that it’s him; he talks about things that only Eric Conn would know.”

White said he first met Conn four years ago and has advised his client repeatedly to come back and face his sentence.

“In every communication I have with [Conn], I advise him to come home,” White said. “He’s a lawyer and he understands the consequences of going fugitive. In his mind, the decision against him was unfair.”

No appeals have been filed in the $31 million judgment that was handed down earlier this month, but White said that may change.

In his response to the judgment against Conn, White called it “out of proportion.”

“For those reasons, I anticipate the firm and Mr. Conn will appeal,” White said.

Conn’s law firm has been closed since he was indicted.

The FBI is currently offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to Conn’s arrest. Conn’s whereabouts remain unknown, and he is considered an experienced traveler, according to White.

It is unknown at this time if Conn has the money to pay off what he owes as a result of the $31 million judgment, but Pillersdorf said he believes Conn saved up money before fleeing.

“Conn is a really smart guy and a sociopath who has known that he was under investigation for fraud,” Pillersdorf said, adding that he thinks there’s a “good chance” Conn “hoarded lots of cash” overseas.

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