"Eric Conn was probably the P.T. Barnum of the legal profession. You could not go anywhere in eastern Kentucky without seeing one of his billboards: big, bright yellow billboards with a mannequin of Conn on it."
That's how Donnie Kidd, supervisory special agent for the FBI, described disability lawyer Eric Conn to CNBC's "American Greed: Biggest Cons," airing Monday, August 24 at 10/9c. Conn was something of a local celebrity in Kentucky, thanks to his massive amount of advertising — but he soon became even more notorious thanks to his massive fraud scheme.
Conn nicknamed himself "Mr. Social Security," bombarded the area with TV ads and billboards, and even hired "Conn Hotties," attractive women to wear tanks emblazoned with his information. And Conn could seemingly back up his nickname — he almost always won his cases and secured his clients disability benefits. He didn't lack for business, either: Conn wisely settled in an area of Appalachia, where many worked in the coal mining industry and had gotten injured or sick in the dangerous line of work.
In 2010, he was the third highest-paid disability lawyer in the United States, and had secured $550 million in lifetime benefits for his clients.
Conn lived large, flaunting the success of his business. He drove a Rolls-Royce, wore expensive suits, and even spent hundreds of thousands of dollars constructing a replica of the Lincoln Memorial in the parking lot of his office/ But Conn's abnormal success rate wasn't the result of talent and luck: Instead, he was masterminding a fraud scheme that would end in hundreds of his clients losing their disability benefits and sending them spiraling into poverty.
Clinton Mullens, a former Conn client who lost his benefits in 2016, told "American Greed," "It was devastating to me when I received the letter [telling him his benefits were revoked]. What am I going to do, how am I going to survive? I ended up homeless [...] there were days when I didn’t have a single bite of food."
So how did the plot work?
Well, he worked with an accomplice: Judge David B. Daugherty. As Jennifer Griffith and Sarah Carver, two former Social Security Administration employees who ended up blowing the whistle on Conn, told "American Greed," they noticed cases were disappearing or were not documented properly. After personally investigating, they discovered Judge Daugherty was the one intercepting the cases and taking possession of them.
They realized Daugherty was ruling favorably to Conn's clients 99 percent of the time, explaining to "American Greed" that kind of rate is unheard of. They reported this strange connection to their supervisors, but instead of being commended for taking action, their concerns were dismissed.
But the two didn't stop there. They went to the media instead, and in 2011, the Wall Street Journal published a bombshell story about Conn and Daugherty based off the women's tip. In the wake of the explosive article, investigations were launched by multiple agencies while Daugherty was put on administrative leave, although he eventually retired.
It was soon revealed that Conn was paying Daugherty anywhere between $8,000 to $14,000 a month between 2004 to 2011 to ensure Daugherty always ruled in favor of Conn's clients. It also eventually came out that Conn was also paying off doctors to fake medical reports for Conn's clients, despite there being little evidence to suggest the people were faking their disability to begin with.
It was described as the largest social security fraud in U.S. history, according to "American Greed."
In 2017, Daugherty pled guilty to two counts of accepting illegal gratuities and admitted he accepted $609,000 in bribe money. He was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay $93 million in restitution, but he died in prison two years into his sentence.
In March 2017, Conn pled guilty to a two-count information charging him with theft of government money and paying illegal gratuities. He was placed on house arrest with an ankle monitor while awaiting sentencing, but on June 2, he was given permission to travel to Lexington, Kentucky to testify against a psychologist who was accused of writing false medical reports for Conn.
However, he never showed up to testify. Instead, Conn cut off the ankle monitor and vanished.
Of course, Conn wouldn't stay missing forever. On December 2, 2017, exactly six months after he fled, Conn was arrested walking out of a Pizza Hut in Honduras. He had already been sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay $170 million in restitution.
He was sent to Grayson County Detention Center in Leitchfield, Kentucky and was hit with new charges related to his escape. He ended up pleading guilty to three counts of conspiracy, and was sentenced to 15 more years in prison.
Jason Damron, a former Conn client, told "American Greed," When he was caught there was that little haha moment like karma, but then it just fell back to reality like what's that gonna change?"
Hundreds of his clients lost their disability benefits after Conn's fraud was discovered. Many were told because there was evidence of fraud, they had to prove they were truly disabled back when they had initially applied — but Conn had burned thousands of records during the investigation.
The SSA held a series of hearings for thousands of Conn's clients, and hundreds of them had their benefits revoked. But luckily, in November 2018, these clients filed a lawsuit against the SSA and won. At this point, though, it had been years without any benefits coming in for these people. Many lost their homes or went hungry, and a few even died by suicide.
Emma Burchett, whose husband died by suicide after his benefits were revoked when the fraud was uncovered, told "American Greed," "The Christian in me cares about [Conn's] soul, but the human side of me tells me that he ought to burn in hell.”
Conn is currently in a federal prison in West Virginia. He will be released in 2040.
To learn more about the whistleblowers and the retaliation they endured for exposing Conn, see the letter Conn wrote to "American Greed," and hear from other victims, watch "American Greed: Biggest Cons" airing on Monday, August 24 at 10/9c on CNBC.
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