By Chris Kenning
(Reuters) – A fugitive Kentucky lawyer who called himself “Mr. Social Security” was deported from Honduras on Tuesday where he had fled after pleading guilty in a $550 million disability fraud scheme, U.S. authorities said.
Eric Conn, 57, one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted, was arrested Monday at a Pizza Hut restaurant in the coastal city of La Ceiba, the FBI said.
Law enforcement agents have been searching for Conn for more than five months. He had run one of the largest disability practices in the United States, centered in Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia.
Conn’s attorney, Scott White, could not be reached for comment on his client’s deportation.
In July, a U.S. judge handed Conn a sentence in absentia of 12 years prison under a plea deal he had agreed to before he fled in June. Conn was sentenced on charges of theft of government money and payment of gratuities.
He will now face additional charges for his escape, FBI Special Agent in Charge Amy Hess said at a news conference in Kentucky.
Conn, of Pikeville, Kentucky, participated in a scheme between 2004 and 2016 that involved submitting thousands of falsified medical documents to the U.S. Social Security Administration, U.S. prosecutors have said.
A retired administrative law judge, who Conn paid $10,000 a month to award benefits to clients, was among those also charged and sentenced in the case, prosecutors said.
Conn fled while under house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor, which was found in a backpack along a road in Lexington, the FBI said. A truck Conn is believed to have used during his escape was discovered in New Mexico near the border with Mexico, the FBI said in July.
The fraud has meant that more than 1,500 disability recipients in the impoverished region have had to fight to keep their payments, attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who is representing many of them, told Reuters.
About 700 have thus far been allowed to keep their benefits and some of the remaining 800 who were denied are appealing, he said. While some claims were bogus, he said it has been hardship to many in Appalachia who need the benefits.
(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; editing by Marguerita Choy and Grant McCool)