WASHINGTON, D.C. — A local attorney who rose from a single, mobile office trailer to become a multimillionaire by focusing on Social Security disability claims was one of the subjects of a blistering Senate committee report alleging widespread fraud and abuse in the disability system.
In a report released Monday by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Eric C. Conn was accused of using his law practice “to exploit key vulnerabilities in a critical federal safety net program and became wealthy in the process.”
The report details a scheme by Conn and former administrative law judge David Daugherty to approve disability claims on a mass basis, using suspect medical evidence obtained from doctors with troubled career histories sought by Conn, earning Conn $3.9 million in Social Security payments in 2010 and $3.5 million in 2009.
“This report highlights the very problems Congress needs to focus on but too often ignores,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R — Okla.) said. “In just two years, the Social Security Disability Trust Fund could be depleted. That means millions of disabled Americans will face benefit cuts while every American could see an increase in their payroll taxes. That is unacceptable. What is also outrageous, as this report details, is how well-healed and well-connected lawyers, doctors, and judges have gamed the system for their own benefit. Every bogus claim made on behalf of someone who is not truly disabled robs taxpayers and denies or delays benefits for someone who is truly disabled. This is an enormous and urgent problem that should demand our immediate attention.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D — Mich.), in his opening remarks, detailed many of the allegations against Conn and Daugherty.
“Evidence of the inappropriate collusion between Mr. Conn and one of the administrative law judges deciding the disability cases is particularly striking,” Levin said. “Administrative Law Judge David Daugherty used a range of techniques to quickly award benefits in large numbers of Conn cases. They included his improperly assigning the Conn cases to himself, secretly informing Mr. Conn of what cases he would decide and what documentation should be submitted, accepting boilerplate medical forms, relying on conclusory medical opinions to reverse prior benefit denials, skipping hearings, and churning out short, poor quality decisions.”
The report also details millions of dollars in payments to Daugherty and several doctors.
“The doctors who provided the medical opinions justifying benefit awards were also well paid,” Levin said. “Since 2006, just five of them split $2 million in fees paid by Mr. Conn. It is possible that Judge Daugherty also received financial benefits; he has yet to explain the origins of multiple cash deposits to his family’s bank accounts totaling $96,000.”
Monday’s hearing included testimony from two employees of the Huntington Social Security office, Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, as well as two former employees of Conn’s firm, Melinda Martin Hicks and Jamie Slone.
Carver described the relationship between Conn and Daugherty as “a mass collusion between a judge and an attorney.”
Conn also appeared before the committee, but invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying.
The 166-page report — titled “How Some Legal, Medical, and Judicial Professionals Abused Social Security Disability Programs for the Country’s Most Vulnerable: A Case Study of the Conn Law Firm” — details an alleged scheme by Conn and Daugherty which resulted in Daugherty deciding 3,143 cases handled by Conn between 2005 and 2011. Of those cases, none were denied and only 18 were dismissed. The remainder were approved, often in bulk, resulting in a commitment by the government to pay estimated lifetime benefits of $2.5 billion.