DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's go now to Kentucky to listen to the story of a colorful local figure gone bad. Today is the day Eric Conn was finally going to be sentenced for masterminding this massive Social Security fraud scheme. But that justice may be delayed, considering that Conn hasn't been seen since he cut off his ankle monitor and fled last month. Here's Eleanor Klibanoff from from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
ELEANOR KLIBANOFF, BYLINE: Eastern Kentucky had never seen anyone like Eric Conn before, a master of self-promotion who called himself Mr. Social Security in bright yellow billboards and goofy ads, like this commercial from 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You need experience. You need results. You need the E-Man. Eric C. Conn gets the job done.
KLIBANOFF: The E-Man built the largest Social Security law firm in Kentucky, touting how quickly he could get disability or supplemental security benefits for clients. He lived well on the profits of that reputation. He went on international trips, bought fancy cars and, outside his office, placed giant replicas of the Statue of Liberty and Lincoln Memorial. The only problem? Conn was just living up to his name. The success was a sham that netted him $23 million. Here's Amy Hess of the Louisville FBI speaking at a press conference last month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMY HESS: Over a 10 year period, attorney Eric C. Conn conspired to award disability benefits to more than 1,700 claimants regardless of their true status. These fraudulent submissions would have exceeded $550 million in lifetime benefits.
KLIBANOFF: Conn pleaded guilty to a scheme the Justice Department called one of the largest in Social Security Administration history. He was under house arrest, facing a prison sentence of up to 12 years, when decided he didn't want to wait any longer. On June 2, he cut off his ankle monitor, dumped it on the side of the highway and disappeared. Except Conn's big personality didn't allow him to just fade away.
BILL ESTEP: When I got the initial email, I thought it was a prank.
KLIBANOFF: Bill Estep, a newspaper reporter with the Lexington Herald-Leader, started getting emails from Conn or someone who knew a lot about him. He said he'd fled to a country without an extradition treaty and provided details on his escape. Conn wanted to correct news stories, asked for unflattering mugshots to be taken down and demanded stricter sentences for his co-conspirators.
ESTEP: I thought it was odd to - for someone who's supposedly on the run to reach out to a reporter that way. But the more I learned about him, the more I became convinced that fits with his personality.
KLIBANOFF: Conn has also sent taunts via fax to former colleagues like Ned Pillersdorf. Pillersdorf represents Conn's former clients, 800 of whom lost their benefits as a result of the fraud. Pillersdorf says the scheme caused a crisis for whole communities in eastern Kentucky. At least two people who lost their benefits committed suicide.
NED PILLERSDORF: I'm much more concerned with whether or not these people have enough money to keep a roof over their head or feed their children. That, to me, is much more important than whether they apprehend or don't apprehend Mr. Conn.
KLIBANOFF: Pillersdorf recently won a $31 million judgment against Conn, but there's little chance of that being paid while he's on the run. In 2011, when questions first emerged about Conn, he made a local television commercial to reassure his clients. In it, he drives a Rolls-Royce, flashes a gold bracelet and smiles as the narrator sings his praises.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He's not one to walk away from a fight. That's just who he is.
KLIBANOFF: But that's exactly what he did. Eastern Kentucky's Mr. Social Security disappeared, leaving behind the feds, his friends and family and thousands of clients who he took advantage of. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Klibanoff in Louisville.
(SOUNDBITE OF ISRAEL NASH'S "MANSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.