FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — At the time he was arrested for defrauding taxpayers of $600 million, disability attorney Eric Conn spoke multiple languages, had crossed the border 140 times in the past decade and had told at least six people he would flee the country instead of going to jail.
Still, a federal judge released Conn on $1.25 million bail last year, citing his status as an “honorably discharged veteran with no known criminal record.” Saturday, one month before a judge was supposed to sentence him to prison, Conn removed his electronic monitoring device and disappeared.
His escape was met with shock by some of his former clients who lost their primary source of income because of his scheme. Not surprise that he ran, but shock at the system that let him leave.
Donna Dye was on her porch when she heard. She had long ago removed the porch light, one of the many cost-saving measures she said she was forced to endure since her ex-coal miner husband lost his disability benefits. She had sold several pieces of her home’s furniture and rigged a system of hoses to collect water from a mountain spring to save on utilities.
When the news came across the radio, she laughed.
“Everybody knew he would run. If it would have been anybody else, he wouldn’t have been home arrest,” she said. “I hope that the FBI actually goes to the end of the Earth to find this man and bring him back to justice.”
Conn started his law practice in a trailer in the rural eastern Kentucky mountains and soon built it into one of the most lucrative disability practices in the country. He lived in a palatial house and billed himself as “Mr. Social Security” in outlandish TV commercials.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky has issued a warrant for Conn’s arrest. David Habich, the chief council for the FBI’s Louisville office, said Monday that he had no new information to share on Conn’s whereabouts.
Scott White, Conn’s attorney, sent a text message to an Associated Press reporter over the weekend to say he has not heard from Conn and does not know where he is.
“Im out of the country – NOT with Eric!” the text message read. “So far as I know he is still out.”
In April of last year, shortly after Conn was arrested, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Wier held a hearing to decide whether Conn should be released from jail pending his trial. An FBI agent testified that, as authorities began closing in on Conn, he told two of his employees he would flee to Cuba to avoid extradition. Another employee said he would run to Ecuador. Others said he had them shred 26,000 pounds of documents and transfer money to overseas bank accounts.
One employee said Conn told him: “I’ll be dead before the government charges me.”
But Wier said the government’s evidence was based on hearsay. An FBI agent who testified noted all of Conn’s statements were made in 2013, three years before his arrest.
“The factors are significantly pro-release,” Wier wrote. “Conn shows mental and physical stability, has a long period of stable employment, and has life-long ties in Pike County, to include his aging mother and young daughter and his livelihood.”
A person who answered the phone at Wier’s office Monday said he had no comment.
Wier did order Conn to surrender his passport and said he could not leave the district without court approval. It’s unclear if Conn traveled with permission in the year since his release.
The federal government has been reviewing the benefits of 1,500 of Conn’s former clients. Ned Pillersdorf, who represents those clients in a class-action lawsuit against Conn, said about 800 of them have lost their benefits.
Dye said her husband recently won his appeal and hopes to begin receiving his benefits again soon.
“It has turned our lives totally and completely upside down,” she said. “I’ve nearly had nervous breakdowns over worrying with bill collectors calling, banks calling. … I’ve just given up. I’m like, ‘Oh well, just take it. You take it and I’ll be out on the street.’
“Eventually, somehow, I’ll come back.”