Fugitive $550M Social Security fraudster lawyer caught in Honduras
Attorney Eric Conn gestures as he invokes his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 7, 2013.Evan Vucci / AP
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A fugitive Kentucky lawyer who escaped before facing sentencing for his central role in a massive Social Security fraud case has been captured in Honduras, officials said Monday.
The Honduras public magistrate's office said in a news release that Eric Conn was captured by a SWAT team as he came out of a restaurant in the coastal city of La Ceiba. The office said the arrest was "the product of arduous intelligence, surveillance and tailing by the agents."
U.S. federal agents spent months tracking Conn, who cut off his electronic monitor and fled in June. The flamboyant attorney was on home detention while awaiting sentencing, but he disappeared while in Lexington, Kentucky, at the permission of federal authorities to meet with his attorney and prosecutors.
Eric Conn is wanted by the FBI for his role in a $550 million fraud scheme. Call (502) 263-6000 with tips. pic.twitter.com/Szk2CrQAtm
Conn pleaded guilty in March to stealing from the federal government and bribing a judge in a more than $500 million Social Security fraud case. His sentencing went on without him last summer, when he was given a 12-year prison term — the maximum possible.
The FBI office in Louisville, Kentucky, did not confirm the arrest Monday. Conn's lawyer, Scott White, said he'd had no communication from the U.S.
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"If in fact Eric has been lawfully captured and is legally returned, then, as I told you in June, this comes as no surprise ... the FBI usually gets their man," White said. Conn is expected to be transferred to the U.S. on Tuesday, according to the Honduran public magistrate's office.
A photo of Conn distributed by the office shows him with close-cropped, reddish-gray hair and a blue polo shirt sitting at a table, with a police agent wearing a ballistic vest and carrying an assault rifle behind him.
Conn, who started his law practice in a trailer in 1993, had portrayed himself as "Mr. Social Security." He fueled that persona with outlandish TV commercials and small-scale replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial at his office in eastern Kentucky.
Conn represented thousands in successful claims for Social Security benefits. Most of his clients in the impoverished coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia had to fight to try to keep their disability checks.
His empire crumbled when authorities discovered he had been bribing a doctor and judge to approve disability claims based on fake medical evidence.
Ned Pillersdorf, an eastern Kentucky attorney who is representing hundreds of Conn's former clients, said Conn's scheme caused a "true humanitarian crisis."
"With his capture, I'm hoping we can get this ordeal behind us, put him in prison where he belongs and start to undo the damage he has done to his former clients," Pillersdorf said in a phone interview Monday night.
As the mystery of his whereabouts persisted, the FBI released two photos that it said showed Conn buying food and water at a gas station in New Mexico and pushing a bike at a Walmart, also in New Mexico.
Federal authorities claim Conn had help in carrying out the escape plot.
An indictment unsealed in October alleged that one of Conn's employees opened a bank account that Conn used to transfer money.