Tan­gled in probe, min­ers lose dis­abil­ity pay

At­tor­ney on cases ac­cused of fraud

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY CLAIRE GALOFARO

MINNIE, KY. | Donna Dye saw the coal truck come bar­rel­ing over the hori­zon. Her head started spin­ning with that fa­mil­iar, des­per­ate urge to end it all.

She thought of the dis­con­nect no­tices, the en­gage­ment ring she pawned to keep the lights on, the house she loved and would prob­a­bly lose. Life in­sur­ance was the only bill up to date; this way, she thought, it might look like an ac­ci­dent.

Months had passed since the let­ter ar­rived from the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “We are sus­pend­ing your dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits,” it said.

She thought of her hus­band, a proud man with a body bro­ken from 26 years of min­ing coal, and the fights over money they never had — un­til now. “Fraud,” the agency had writ­ten. The hu­mil­i­a­tion con­sumed them.

She thought about veering across the yel­low line and slam­ming head-on into that truck.

For more than a year, Ms. Dye’s fam­ily and hun­dreds of oth­ers in the coal­fields have been fight­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to keep their dis­abil­ity checks. They have one thing in com­mon: They hired at­tor­ney Eric C. Conn, a flam­boy­ant master mar­keter who billed him­self “Mr. So­cial Se­cu­rity.”

Now fed­eral of­fi­cials al­lege he fun­neled $600 mil­lion in fraud­u­lent claims to this im­pov­er­ished pocket of Ap­palachia, and the gov­ern­ment turned off the spigot. It sus­pended dis­abil­ity pay­ments to hun­dreds of Mr. Conn’s for­mer clients, pro­pel­ling them into a year­long bat­tle with the gov­ern­ment. They must prove once again that they de­served dis­abil­ity years ago, or their checks stop com­ing.

Crit­ics call So­cial Se­cu­rity Dis­abil­ity a se­cret wel­fare pro­gram that mor­phed over the decades from serv­ing the truly dis­abled to aid­ing the un­em­ploy­able: the un­e­d­u­cated, the frail, who live in places where a rot­ting econ­omy re­lies on back­break­ing la­bor.

But many in these crum­bling cor­ners of blue-col­lar Amer­ica have few op­tions. The mass sus­pen­sions laid bare their ab­so­lute de­pen­dence on dis­abil­ity.

Three peo­ple killed them­selves. Oth­ers caught them­selves in quiet mo­ments won­der­ing whether they’d be bet­ter off dead.

Ms. Dye didn’t crash her car into the truck. She pulled over and sat an hour, her tem­ples puls­ing. Dis­abil­ity had been her fam­ily’s safety net; now there was noth­ing to save them from flail­ing to­ward im­pact.

“It’s like sit­ting in a tub of wa­ter, float­ing, noth­ing’s wrong,” she said. “And then some­body pulls the cork; you get sucked out and ev­ery­thing’s gone.”

Mr. Conn opened his law prac­tice 23 years ago in a trailer in his home­town of Stanville, Ken­tucky, pop­u­la­tion 500. There he built the third-most-lucrative dis­abil­ity firm in the na­tion.

He paid women called “Conn’s hot­ties” to at­tend events with his 1-800 num­ber printed across their tank tops. He erected a 19-foot replica of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial in the park­ing lot of his law com­plex. In an ad, he bragged he sent a lo­cal boy with can­cer to Dis­ney World, and closed with a preacher’s bene­dic­tion giv­ing thanks for Mr. Conn’s kind­ness.

Tim Dye hurt his back in the mines years ago; a car wreck in 2008 ag­gra­vated his in­juries. He re­sisted ap­ply­ing for dis­abil­ity, his wife said, un­til it got to where he couldn’t push in the clutch in his truck or bend over to tie his shoes.

His ini­tial ap­pli­ca­tion was de­nied. He hired Mr. Conn.

About three-quar­ters of ini­tial claims are re­jected. If they win on ap­peal, ap­pli­cants are en­ti­tled to pay­ments dat­ing back to when they be­came un­able to work, and lawyers get a cut. Mr. Conn raked in more than $20 mil­lion in fees.

For­mer U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can, led an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Mr. Conn’s firm in 2013. It de­scribed an elab­o­rate sys­tem in which Mr. Conn paid doc­tors and a judge to rub­ber-stamp dis­abil­ity claims us­ing phony med­i­cal ev­i­dence. Years passed.

Donna Dye and her hus­band were un­aware of any im­pro­pri­eties — they took him their records, went to the ap­point­ments he ar­ranged and trusted he took care of the rest.

But in May 2015, 11 months be­fore Mr. Conn was in­dicted, the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion sent the let­ters to hun­dreds of his clients, al­leg­ing fraud and warn­ing of sus­pen­sions.

A band of 150 vol­un­teer at­tor­neys now rep­re­sent­ing Mr. Conn’s for­mer clients say the deck is stacked against them: The agency is as­sum­ing fraud with­out hav­ing to prove any of them com­mit­ted it. They’re ex­pected to re­call doc­tors’ names from years ago.

Of the hun­dreds ini­tially sus­pended, about half were cut off. Their cases are en­tan­gled in law­suits. They’re left to live with no in­come.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Donna Dye, who is un­em­ployed and whose hus­band is dis­abled, plays with her grand­daugh­ters at her home in Minnie, Ken­tucky. Ms. Dye and her hus­band have been fight­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to keep his So­cial Se­cu­rity dis­abil­ity checks af­ter a lo­cal lawyer who helped them be­came the sub­ject of a fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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