This is one of those stories that just sounds as if it can’t be real. I mean, we all know that dishonest actors engage in fraud and rob the taxpayers by bilking the Social Security and Medicare systems. Some false claims are filed or relatives keep collecting the checks of people who have died. But stealing a half a billion dollars just sounds like something out of the next Oceans 11 film. And yet, according to this report from Government Executive, that’s exactly what happened in Kentucky.
In a break for the governmentwide effort to thwart improper payments, the Justice Department on Friday announced a guilty plea by a Kentucky disability attorney involved in a scheme to defraud the Social Security Administration of as much as $550 million.
Eric Christopher Conn, 56, of Pikeville, Ky., pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky to one count of theft of government money and one count of payment of gratuities.
From October 2004 to April 2016, according to the plea, “Conn participated in a scheme with former SSA administrative law judge David Daugherty and multiple doctors that involved the submission of thousands of falsified medical documents to the SSA. Conn and his co-conspirators obligated the SSA to pay more than $550 million in lifetime benefits to claimants for these fraudulent submissions.”
Any of you who watched The Sopranos (in the early seasons) probably recognize the scheme which was going on here. Criminals work with doctors and, if needed, judges to approve bogus claims for benefits. The government is easily hoodwinked and soon the checks start coming, with the perpetrator who organized the whole thing getting a nice kickback. In the case of Eric Conn (what a perfect name) that added up to more than five million dollars in his pocket from 2004 to 2011. Pretty sweet work if you can get it, eh?
This case of criminal life imitating art is, sadly, far from unique. Whenever there is a large sum of money moving around, unscrupulous people will show up to try to get their hands on it, and there are few larger pools of cash in the world than our entitlement systems. If we were talking about a private business being abused in this fashion the jig would be up pretty quickly. When you begin draining cash out of a business in the private sector you’re cutting into their bottom line and the owner monitors that closely. But the federal behemoth doesn’t run as a for-profit institution because everyone involved is dealing with “somebody else’s money.” (That would be yours for those of you keeping score at home.) As long as the people perpetrating the fraud are all doctors, lawyers, local officials and other “trusted persons” then Uncle Sam is less likely to ask questions or go over the books too closely.
Unfortunately, this goes on all too often, and we’re left to wonder just how many more of these fraudsters are lurking out there. Check out this report at the Washington Times from 2014 which lists some of the worst fraud cases ever recorded. By some estimates, the number of disability cases which are fraudulent every year could easily run into the thousands, if not tens of thousands. No doubt few of them are on the scale of what Mr. Conn managed to pull off, but the sum total could easily put him to shame.
Our entitlement programs are in need of reform on many levels, but one of the first (and theoretically easiest) to fix would be to crack down on the massive fraud which is taking place. The effort to do so could require intensive investments of time and resources, but it would pay for itself in no time if we can uncover a few more criminals as successful as Eric Conn.