In 2015, the U.S. Social Security Administration suspended disability payments to hundreds of families in Appalachia during an investigation into potential fraud. It was a blow that brought grinding poverty to many who had labored in the Kentucky coalfields. The investigation targeted Eric C. Conn, a flashy Kentucky attorney who called himself “Mr. Social Security,” and who was finally arrested in April 2016 for his alleged role in a $600 million federal disability fraud scheme. All of the people whose disability payments were suspended were clients of the aptly named Conn.
According to AP, “Critics call [the disability payments] a secret welfare program that morphed over the decades from serving the truly disabled to aiding the unemployable: the uneducated, the frail, the unfortunates. …The government has squeezed other programs for the poor, leaving many in these crumbling corners of blue-collar America with few good options. The mass suspensions laid bare their absolute dependence on disability.” One man is now sleeping in his pick-up truck. A woman and her children kept only their camping gear and went out to live in the woods. In desperation, three people have committed suicide, and others see little reason to go on living and suffering from their various disabilities, now going untreated.
A two-year investigation led by former Sen. Tom Coburn found that Conn was working with discredited doctors who provided phony medical evidence for thousands of disability claims. Nearly a year before he was accused of any crime, Conn’s clients received letters from the Social Security Administration advising them that their lawyer was suspected of filing claims using fraudulent medical evidence, their benefits were suspended, and they had 10 days to collect their medical records from years before to again prove they deserved their benefits.
Conn was charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, obstruction, false statements, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering, and conspiracy to structure payments.
The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, a legal aid organization in eastern Kentucky, recruited a large network of 150 attorneys to assist Conn’s former clients. In October 2016, a Kentucky federal judge ruled that several of the people whose disability payments were stopped while their hearings were ongoing had been treated unconstitutionally by the Social Security Administration. Said the lead attorney, Ned Pillersdorf, “”My hope is that the SSA will just cease and leave these people alone and stop these rigged, unfair hearings that have just terrorized this community.”
Unfortunately all professions have bad apples, and these people suffered because of one bad lawyer. We hope this doesn’t discourage others from seeking quality legal advice when they are in need of help.