Eric C. Conn, dubbed “Mr. Social Security” with celebrity status like “Mick Jagger” in eastern Kentucky, is the focus of the AppleTV+ documentary series The Big Conn, following his $550 million government fraud, one of the largest in U.S. history.
“One of the producers we were working with on the project, Peter King, brought the idea of Eric to us and we kept looking into it," James Lee Hernandez told Yahoo Canada.
"[We] dove deeper and deeper, and just saw this larger than life wild attorney who is traveling the world and driving around in a Rolls Royce and multimillion dollar homes, and all of these crazy antics in a small town in eastern Kentucky."
The crux of Conn’s fraud was that he was having falsified disability claims in eastern Kentucky processed quickly.
Some call Conn a type of Robin Hood, who was frauding the U.S. government but ultimately, getting social security and disability payments to his community much faster than the two years it can take through the normal, legal channel. But that argument is a little hard to stomach when he was flaunting his wealth and living a life of flamboyant, opulent luxury on the back of these disability claims.
The Big Conn features interviews with Conn’s former employees, the whistleblowers who risked their safety to collect and disseminate the information on his fraud scheme, the reporter who broke the story and even a bizarre manifesto Conn wrote about his fraud.
“They're almost like they're written like he was watching a movie, starring himself,” co-writer/director Brian Lazarte told Yahoo Canada about Conn’s manifesto. “A critical component of telling the story was that we'd actually have Eric's point of view.”
In terms of getting Conn’s point of view, the series does also have direct recordings of the jailed fraudster, who ends up admitting that his actions were wrong.
“I think time gave him a great deal of perspective on what he did, he's realizing the consequence of his actions, I don't think he realized when he was getting in bed with judges and doctors to pull off this crazy crime of defrauding the federal government out of the half a billion dollars, that he was going to cause as much harm as he did,” Lazarte said.
The real people that Conn harmed were the individuals who had legitimate disability claims, were reliant on that money, and it was completely taken away from them. The Big Conn reveals that not only caused financial hardship, but mental distress that led to several suicides in the community.
“It’s not easy when everyone…thinks you are a liar and a cheat…because you’re a client of Eric Conn,” one of his former clients says in the series.
'Definite flaws within a system that this was allowed to go down'
The real heroes in this story are Sarah Carver, a former social security administration technician and Jennifer Griffith, a former master docket clerk, who were the whistleblowers in this story.
As we see in the series, the pair had collected information about how claims that came from Eric Conn were quickly signed off from specific judges, and all the claims looked the same. When people on Conn's side of the issue found out about the information they had, the women were followed by a private investigator and intimidated to the point where they feared for their safety, and their family's safety.
“It was absolutely mind blowing the amount of information Sara and Jennifer had,” James Lee Hernandez said. “We ended up spending three straight days with them of nonstop information, they were just gushing at the seams with all this information, all the documentation to prove and backup everything that they were talking about.”
“[It] shows definite flaws within a system that this was allowed to go down.”
The flaws in the system is also a core aspect of this story. Ultimately, if the logistics around these claims was more streamlined and efficient, there wouldn’t be an incentive for people to go to Eric Conn to speed up and ease the process.
“It is very easy to get lured in by Eric and his crazy antics,...and as we delve into the story more [we realize] that there are just these massive inherent flaws that allowed Eric to do what he did,” Hernandez said. “If it wasn't taking 18 months to two years for people to get benefits, Eric wouldn't have existed because people would be getting benefits in time.”
“Part of his selling point was the fact that he had people’s benefits in a month to two months when the rest of the people were waiting years”