Kentucky lawyer who vanished pleads not guilty to escape
By BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky lawyer who vanished for six months to elude prison time in a Social Security fraud case now faces a much harsher sentence that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life, his attorney acknowledged Wednesday.
Eric Conn was in a federal courtroom in Lexington, Kentucky, the day after he was flown back to the United States following his capture outside a Pizza Hut in Honduras.
Conn’s legal woes now go beyond his plea deal in the massive fraud case. He now faces escape and failure to appear charges outlined in an indictment unsealed in October while the attorney was still missing. Conn’s attorney, Scott White, entered a not guilty plea to those charges during the hearing.
White told reporters that he’s anticipating that federal prosecutors will attempt to pursue more than a dozen charges against Conn that would have been dropped as part of his original plea deal. If Conn is ultimately convicted on those charges as well as the escape-related charges, he could face a potential life sentence, White said.
White later told reporters that Conn was calm when they met for about 40 minutes before the hearing.
“He’s obviously sad that he’s back here in the sense of having to deal with this stuff that he thought he had put behind him,” White said.
Conn, 57, was handcuffed and wore a yellow jail outfit at the hearing. After taking his seat, he looked around the courtroom and nodded toward the prosecution team. Conn only spoke when asked questions by the U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Wier and offered brief replies.
Wier set a bond violation hearing in Conn’s case for Dec. 28.
Prosecutors will present court filings to indicate whether they intend to pursue those original charges.
A federal prosecutor declined to comment after the hearing.
White said that he intends to fight any efforts to have Conn face those charges.
“That completely changes the tenor of what we’ve got to do,” White said.
Conn was sentenced in absentia last summer to a 12-year prison term for stealing from the government and bribing a judge as part of the more than $500 million Social Security fraud case.
“Here’s a guy that really rolled the dice,” White said, “because the deal we got for him is he was going to do no more than 85 percent of 12 years.”
He said when he met with Conn on Wednesday morning, Conn asked about his mother and had questions about the case and where he’ll be held.
White said he does not know how long Conn was in Honduras or whether he’d taken refuge anywhere else.
White said Conn started serving his 12-year sentence as soon as he was transferred to the custody of the U.S. government.
Conn was handcuffed and wore blue jeans and a blue jacket Tuesday evening as he arrived back in Kentucky at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, according to media reports.
As reporters shouted questions at him, Conn said: “It’s good to be home,” according to WSAZ-TV.
Conn fled on June 2 when he cut off his electronic ankle monitor.
One of Conn’s former employees, Curtis Lee Wyatt, is facing charges of helping in Conn’s escape.
His capture has been cheered by his former clients and their families, who have struggled to make ends meet while fighting to keep their Social Security disability checks.
Conn, who started his law practice in a trailer in 1993, had portrayed himself as “Mr. Social Security.” He fueled that flamboyant persona with outlandish TV commercials and small-scale replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial at his office in eastern Kentucky.
Conn represented thousands in successful claims for Social Security benefits.
But his empire crumbled when authorities discovered he had been bribing a doctor and a judge to approve disability claims based on fake medical evidence.
Among his former clients in the impoverished coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are many people with legitimate disabilities.
Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney representing many of Conn’s former clients, has said Conn caused a “true humanitarian crisis.” As part of the fallout, the Social Security Administration identified about 1,500 beneficiaries who were made to undergo hearings, he said. Pillersdorf said those hearings are nearly complete, and about 700 have been found eligible to maintain the benefits.