Prosecutors have offered a plea deal to the man who ran the largest disability scam in U.S. history, agreeing to a total of 27 years in prison to account for the fraud, plotting retaliation against a whistleblower, and for jumping bail to flee the country ahead of his sentencing.
Eric C. Conn would serve out the 12-year sentence for the Social Security disability scheme, then get another 15 years tacked on for various conspiracy charges stemming from the retaliation and escape, according to outlines of the deal the government shared with one of the victims in the case, whistleblower Sarah Carver.
For Ms. Carver and others whose lives were upended by the scam, which already tops $1 billion in potential fraud, and by what they describe as a bungling government response, the sentence isn’t nearly enough.
Ned Pillersdorf, a lawyer for hundreds of people who were snared in the scam, also said Conn should get more time.
“While I philosophically dislike long sentences for nonviolent white collar criminals, the exceptions are the Bernard Madoff class of con artists who do incalculable damage to unsuspecting individuals on a mass scale,” Mr. Pillersdorf said. “Conn and Madoff are in the same class and ought to share a cell and have the same release date.”
Mr. Madoff is serving a 150-year sentence after pleading guilty to running a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme that sapped investments and savings from thousands of clients.
Conn pleaded guilty last year to his part in a fraud ring that saw him recruit clients, then pay off doctors to fabricate medical or psychological evaluations signaling a disability. Conn then submitted those applications to Social Security judges who he also was plying with cash or gifts, and who rubber-stamped potentially thousands of bogus disability cases.
After pleading guilty, Conn was slated to testify against a psychologist who was part of the scam, then was to be sentenced himself.
He’d been out on bond during his own case, and even after he pleaded guilty — and despite him having repeatedly said he would flee the country — the judge and the government didn’t revoke his bond. Just before he was to testify last June against the psychologist, Conn cut off his ankle bracelet and ran for the U.S.-Mexico border, escaping to Central America.
He was recaptured in December at a Pizza Hut in Honduras.
Since then he’s been in jail, where he’s fired off a lengthy letter to a local newspaper detailing his escape, and has also been writing about the extent of his fraud, in what appears to be efforts to implicate others. He has not responded to a postal service letter sent by The Washington Times asking for his version of events.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) originally flagged about 1,800 of Conn’s cases for review and halted those benefits, throwing communities in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia into chaos. Mr. Pillersdorf says several suicides can be traced to Social Security’s decision to cancel benefits.
He’s fighting to restore benefits to many of those Conn clients who he says were deserving, but got snared in the scam. And he’s fighting to prevent Social Security from halting other benefits, now that the agency has identified an additional 2,000 disability grants as suspicious.
The original 1,800 cases totaled $600 million in fraud, the government says. The 2,000 additional cases would likely more than double that total, and the whistleblowers say thousands of other cases could also be implicated.
Dustin M. Davis, the Justice Department lawyer leading the case, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the looming plea deal.
But in an email to Ms. Carver’s lawyer, he described the government’s action: “We intend to file a three-count information charging Mr. Conn with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to escape, and conspiracy to retaliate against an informant.”
“As you know, each count carries with it a five-year maximum term of imprisonment,” he added. “However, the plea agreement calls for a 15-year term of imprisonment (three five-year consecutive terms of imprisonment) to run consecutive to the 12 years the court previously imposed in [the fraud case], for a total of 27 years imprisonment.”
The conspiracy to retaliate charge stems from Mr. Conn assigning henchman Curtis Wyatt to follow Ms. Carver, after she and fellow Social Security employee Jennifer Griffith exposed the scam. Wyatt was supposed to look for evidence Ms. Carver was violating her telework agreement in order to discredit her as a whistleblower. He was unable to find evidence.
Wyatt would later plead guilty to helping plan and orchestrate Conn’s escape last year.
Ms. Carver and Ms. Griffith say they felt the Justice Department has mishandled the case throughout. They said the department even allowed the generous home confinement agreement that allowed Conn to pay Wyatt for services in the months before he jumped bail — with Wyatt’s help.
“The DOJ is doing what they have been doing best, protecting their ‘client’ SSA,” Mr. Griffith said.
Added Ms. Carver: “They are not interested in justice. I’m hurt and angry that DOJ continues to engage lenient pleas deals with little to no regard for the victims of not only Mr. Conn’s crimes, but the crimes of Charlie Paul Andrus, David B. Daugherty, Curtis Wyatt and various other SSA employees who have never been charged.”
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