LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – As expelled lawyer Eric Conn sits in federal prison, hundreds of people in one of America’s poorest regions remain mired in the legal mess he caused by leading a $ 600 million fraud, the biggest Social Security scam in US history.
Many of Conn’s former clients in the Appalachian Mountains, eastern Kentucky, who relied on him to help them get their disability benefits, could again lose their monthly support.
About 1,700 people have already undergone hearings to prove their disability after his fraud came to light about six years ago, and about half have lost their benefits as a result. Some 230 of those beneficiaries managed to have their benefits reinstated years later by court order, only to learn that they may have to prove it again.
This is the situation facing Mary Sexton, who suffers from scoliosis and has had two brain surgeries, as well as spinal surgery to fuse the vertebrae in her neck. Her illnesses left her with lameness and other chronic symptoms including headaches, kidney problems and an inability to concentrate which forced her to drop out of college.
A court order restored her disability benefit to $ 1,100 per month in November. But two months later, she received a letter from the Social Security Administration telling her that she would have to appear before an administrative judge to prove that she was legally entitled to it.
Under the Federal Social Security Act, people who cannot earn an income due to a terminal illness or a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment” that lasts at least one year are entitled to monthly cash benefits for life. At the start of 2019, these payments averaged $ 1,234 per month, just above the poverty line, but enough to cover a person’s basic needs.
To be eligible, a person must provide medical evidence – not just a statement of symptoms – that an anatomical, physiological or psychological abnormality has prevented them from engaging in “substantial gainful occupation”.
The government spends around $ 200 billion a year on payments, and because the pain can be subjective, it uses administrative judges to track down fraudsters. It’s unclear whether some or how many of Conn’s former clients may have been deceptive about a disability, but volunteer lawyers who work with Conn’s former clients say they have seen few of these cases.
Conn bribed doctors with payments of $ 400 to falsify his clients’ medical records, then paid a judge to approve lifetime benefits. His plea deal in 2017 would have put him in jail for 12 years, but Conn fled the country, leading federal agents in a six-month prosecution that ended when he was arrested in Honduras. The escape attempt added 15 years to his sentence.
Sexton, 35, said he hired Conn for his disability case over 15 years ago, when the millionaire lawyer was using billboards and advertisements across the poverty-stricken region, promising benefits for people with disabilities.
âThat’s all you heard here, it was ‘Mr. Social Security’,â Sexton said. “It’s horrible what this man has done to people.”
Sexton, who now lives with his mother in Hazard, said the “weight of the world” had lifted from his shoulders when his payments resumed.
“And here I get this letter and they tell me that I still have the possibility of losing them, like I did something wrong,” Sexton said, on the verge of tears.
She went without benefits for nearly five years after Conn’s project came to light, losing her home and sleeping for weeks in her car until she swallowed her pride and asked for help.
âI was actually ashamed to tell my mom,â Sexton said. “My health problems certainly haven’t improved during all of this.”
A judge ultimately ruled that the agency unconstitutionally ignored medical evidence in all 230 cases, saying even an “al-Qaeda member” would have been more fairly shaken up. Despite this decision, the government has indicated it will try again.
“We were hoping the Biden administration and the new regime (in Washington) would end this, but for now we are concerned,” said Ned Pillersdorf, an eastern Kentucky lawyer representing dozens of former clients. by Conn. “We thought there was a real opportunity to turn the tide.”
In a statement to the Associated Press, the Social Security Administration said it is required by law to “reassess entitlements when there is reason to believe that fraud or similar fault was involved in a person’s claim for benefits â. The statement said Conn’s fraud, revealed by two agency employees in a whistleblower lawsuit, is “well documented.”
Pillersdorf called the hearings “bizarre” because they do not have to prove a current disability. Instead, they must show that they were disabled when Conn was their lawyer, in some cases over ten years ago. Conn destroyed thousands of pages of documents kept in his office, frustrating such efforts.
Pillersdorf and dozens of other lawyers intervened after the agency initially suspended benefit payments, working for free in many cases to help hundreds navigate the quagmire. Pillersdorf said his practice had been consumed by a “more than six-year litigation war.”
A string of losses on appeal has not deterred the government, and Pillersdorf has said he and other lawyers will go to court to try to stop hearings if they begin.
The Social Security Administration maintains that eligibility issues regarding Conn’s former clients were never fully addressed. “Several courts have found that our redetermination process requires additional procedural protections, (but) no court has concluded that the agency should not make a re-determination,” the statement said.
In a letter to the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Representative Hal Rogers said the agency has spent millions to deny relatively small sums to unwitting victims of a con artist.
“These individuals are the victims of fraud, not the perpetrators, and it is time for their uncertainty and anxiety to end,” the Kentucky Republican wrote, pleading for a process that would keep them out of court.