LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - A federal judge has sentenced Eric C. Conn to an additional 15 years in prison, meaning the disbarred eastern Kentucky attorney could spend much of the next three decades behind bars.
At a hearing Friday afternoon in Lexington, U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves announced that sentence would run consecutive to his previous 12-year sentence for a $550 million social security scheme involving elected officials and thousands of unsuspecting disability clients.
"I've made a lot of mistakes," Conn said during the hearing. "For a man who wanted to do a lot of good in his life, I've done a lot of wrong."
Judge Reeves also said Conn owes $72 million dollars in restitution to the government.
The sentencing likely brings to an end a years-long saga involving the man responsible for the largest Social Security fraud scheme in U.S. history. An international escape to Central America last year ahead of his own sentencing (and a co-conspirator's trial in which he was supposed to testify) has proved Conn's road to justice has been a long and twisted one. Conn was found at a Pizza Hut in Honduras six months after he cut off an ankle bracelet while on house arrest.
During sentencing on Friday, Conn expressed remorse, apologizing to the country, his family and his former clients. He became emotional when apologizing to his mother who died while he was behind bars.
"An apology can't right the wrongs I've done," Conn said, "but I think it's a good place to start."
But for whatever sympathy Conn might have garnered in his remorseful and frail state, prosecutors pushed for a maximum sentence of five years for each of the three charges, saying Conn "has zero integrity."
Former Social Security Administration workers who blew the whistle on Conn's scheme said after the hearing that they are satisfied with the sentence, but want others to be held accountable, too.
"I think it was a fair sentence given especially some of the much lighter sentences some of the other people involved in this have received," Jennifer Griffith said. "For example, Charlie Paul Andrus receiving six months and Curtis Wyatt receiving seven. It's what I expected and I think it's OK. I think there's other people that still need to be charged, but..."
Griffith was joined by Sarah Carver, a fellow whistleblower who delivered a victim impact statement during the hearing that also called out several others she believes are just as responsible in the scheme as Conn but have not been charged. Both Griffith and Carver, who say they lost their jobs with the SSA because they reported Conn's wrongdoing, said they want to see more done.
They accepted Conn's apology.
"I do sincerely believe his apology," Carver said. "It doesn't make right what he did by any means, but I do believe that he was sincere in his apology. It's way more than what we have received from anybody within the Social Security Administration."
Neither prosecutors, Conn's family, nor Conn's attorney would comment after the hearing.
During sentencing Judge Reeves said that with Conn's gifts and abilities, things didn't have to turn out this way. "Where did it go wrong?" he asked.
Judge Reeves and Conn's attorney, Willis Coffey, repeatedly mentioned Conn's "medical concerns" that need to be addressed while in prison. It is unclear what those are - they did not elaborate - but the judge did say Conn will be evaluated and will get the treatment he needs.
Conn, 57, turns 58 later this month. With federal inmates having to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, Conn will likely be spend at least 22 years of his 27-year sentence behind bars.
"It's good to be home," Conn told reporters when he got off the plane in December, escorted by federal agents after being captured in Honduras. Now home will be federal prison, until he is at least 80 years old.
Meanwhile, many of Conn's former clients still do not know whether or not they will get to keep their disability benefits. Thousands have gone or are going through "re-determination" hearings with the Social Security Administration, leaving many in limbo and even leading to suicides, said Ned Pillersdorf, who represents many of Conn's former clients.
"The humanitarian crisis is as bad as it's ever been," Pillersdorf told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Pillersdorf said Conn's former clients - none of whom ever even met the man, he said - are being punished, not being treated as victims.
"The difference being Conn is being punished for something he is guilty of, and his former clients are being punished for something they are not guilty of," Pillersdorf said in a Facebook post.