Prior to his arrest, Conn managed the third most lucrative disability practice in all of the United States. But how exactly did he grow his firm to this level of prosperity? From October 2004 through April 2016, Conn colluded with two administrative law judges (ALJs) and a number of doctors to forge medical documents and quickly earn award benefits for his clients. Conveniently enough, his practice was located in area where an exploit such as this could operate efficiently at its full potential. In the destitute coal mining regions of Appalachia, “socioeconomic disadvantages and health disparities” impel a mass of people to rely on social security disability benefits as their sole source of income. In Floyd County, where Conn operated, an estimated 30% of impoverished people and 24% of adults under the age of 65 rely on disability awards as income maintenance. These poverty-stricken coal mining communities provided Conn the opportunity to fraudulently channel over 550 million dollars into the Appalachia region by way of his exploit. Before he could even know this caliber of legal success, Conn had to prove that his clients’ disabilities met the standards clearly defined by the SSA.
The administration defines a “disability” as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of less than 12 months.” Conn obtained the required favorable medical evidence for his clients by specifically recruiting a small roster of doctors with a history of disciplinary actions and malpractice claims. The doctors favored by Conn and his practice included Frederic Huffnagle, David Herr, Alfred Bradley Adkins, and Srinivas Ammisetty. With a hand-picked team of shady doctors at his back, Conn was now equipped with the tools necessary to add another layer of sophistication to his grand scheme.
Conn regularly used aggressive advertising for his doctors and housed a “medical suite” in his own law office to ensure that every single one of his clients’ medical evidence complied with his plan. Frederic Huffnagle was the doctor chosen to operate the “medical suite” established in Conn’s law practice. Dr. Huffnagle examined as many as 35 claimants for 15 minutes each every day. Dr. Huffnagle was able to maintain this incredible work pace because he was supplied with prefilled-out template medical forms from attorney Conn. The doctor signed each template without examining the client it was intended for.
An example of forms routinely fabricated by Conn is the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form. The RFC form is required by the SSA during medical determination process in order to assess a claimant’s “ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work.” Conn created several variants of this form with all fields filled out except the ones for a client’s name and social security number. According to a testimony from former Conn employee, Jamie Slone, the forms were assigned randomly prior to being signed by Dr. Huffnagle; as a result, Conn claimants often shared identical RFC forms. Since every person should have their own unique set of abilities, two claimants having identical forms is a “next to impossible” occurrence. Conn’s fabrication habits did not stop at medical forms. He also included favorable X-ray and radiological images in his forging scheme.
While Dr. Huffnagle was busy adding to his riches at the cost of signing counterfeit physical medical evidence forms for Conn’s clients, psychologist Alfred Adkins was the doctor favored to sign counterfeit mental medical documentation. A government investigation found that 74% of all RFC forms signed by Adkins were counterfeit templates provided by Conn. In their short time with Conn, his team of doctors combined to yield over 1.7 million dollars in consultation fees for participating in his fraudulent conspiracy.
Conn’s favored doctors undoubtedly were the backbone to his conspiracy; nevertheless, it would have had a shorter longevity without the help of two corrupt Huntington ALJs, David Daugherty and Paul Andrus. In May of 2011, the Wall Street Journal published an exposé, highlighting the relationship between ALJ Daugherty and Eric Conn in his SSA fraud scheme. Former Judge Daugherty allegedly received bribes from the attorney in return for assigning the majority of Conn’s cases to himself, and issuing favorable decisions for all of Conn’s claimants. According to other judges and staff of the Huntington, West Virginia office, Daugherty would even decide on cases that were originally assigned to a different judge. This illegal exchange between Conn and Daugherty began in 2006. By 2011, the duo evolved their scheme to permit Daugherty to grant favorable decisions with such efficiency it could be compared to a factory assembly line.
The system developed by these two began with Conn sending Daugherty a list of clients who were to be approved that month. Upon receiving this “DB List,” Daugherty would then revise the list for claimants who should provide more physical or mental evidence of a disability, and share their names with Conn. Claimants chosen by Daugherty then visited Conn’s doctors to receive the forged evidence required. Now with the adequate evidence, Daugherty was able to reverse agency denials to grant benefits to Conn’s clients. With this assembly line system in place, Daugherty was allowed to schedule 15-minute hearings for up to 20 Conn clients per day. He later abandoned holding individual hearings to instead grant favorable decisions in large numbers. Colluding with Conn proved to be very profitable for ALJ Daugherty. He allegedly received more than $609,000 in bribe money in exchange for awarding benefits in approximately 3,149 Conn cases before his administrative leave in 2011.
As David Daugherty bore the risk of awarding fraudulent decisions, the Chief ALJ of the Huntington office, Paul Andrus, acted as a sentinel for the entire operation. After the Wall Street Journal’s article was published, Conn was prompted to devise a plan with Judge Andrus to keep onlookers from discovering their conspiracy. This plan involved Andrus having to discredit suspicious claims from Sarah Carver, a senior case technician and early informant of Conn’s scheme. Judge Andrus admitted that he and Conn regularly performed video surveillances of Carver when she worked from home in order to catch her breaching his office’s policies. In spite of the resounding evidence suggesting the Andrus and his Huntington office was very much corrupt; he was not removed from his position until 2013.
It is apparent that without these key corrupt players contributing to his sophisticated operation, Conn would have been unable to bring SSA to its knees by exploiting crucial weaknesses “in a critical federal safety net program.”
Continue Reading: Mr. Social Security: Part 3