‘The Big Conn’: How a flashy Kentucky lawyer got caught swindling millions from Social Security
Apple TV+ docuseries recalls the scam that bankrolled Eric C. Conn’s hedonistic lifestyle—and took a toll on hundreds of disabled victims.
Saul Goodman at his most brazen would have told Eric C. Conn to cool it with the billboards and the TV ads and the endless self-promotion. Why, the real-life Kentucky attorney who fancied himself as a bluegrass James Bond not only had a Statue of Liberty replica on display outside his law offices, he spent $500,000 to build a knockoff of the iconic Lincoln Memorial statue of Honest Abe.
All the while stealing more than $550 million from the U.S. government’s Social Security program, shamelessly flaunting his ill-gotten wealth, engaging in a ridiculously hedonistic lifestyle that included getting married more than a dozen times—and going on the lam in a desperate attempt to reach a country without an extradition treaty with the United States.
“The Big Conn,” indeed.
A four-part documentary available Friday on Apple TV+.
Created by the duo of James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte (“McMillion$”) and launching Friday, this four-part Apple TV+ docuseries strikes just the right combination of almost breezy astonishment while chronicling Conn’s outlandish and blatantly crooked schemes and his embarrassing albeit fascinating attempts to create a larger-than-life persona—and then switching to a more somber approach when we see the true victims of Conn’s illegal shell game. Yes, the government was bilked out of millions of dollars in falsified claims, but when the slow-motion wheels of justice finally began to grind forward, hundreds of individuals with legitimate disability claims were caught in the legal crossfire. That’s when our assessment of Conn segues from amused and amazed to livid and outraged.
“The Big Conn” plunges us into the flashy world of the Eastern Kentucky attorney, aka “Mr. Social Security,” often relying on direct passages from Conn’s unpublished manuscript to add color to the story as he chronicles his rise to local legend status while operating a long-running scam that involved the rubber-stamping of thousands of Social Security disability claims. With the cooperation of a crooked judge, Conn could practically guarantee your claim would be processed and approved in record time. Giving all due credit to Damian Paletta, the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story in the early 2010s and is prominently featured in the series, Hernandez and Lazarte employ the usual techniques of new interviews, archival footage and a judicious use of dramatic re-creations to tell this jaw-dropping story of Conn’s widespread corruption.
Conn’s wild antics, from his outlandish personal life to his ill-fated, “Catch Me If You Can” taunting of the FBI, are the stuff of feature films—but as he finally acknowledges in a telephone interview, he’s not some colorful anti-hero; he’s the villain. The heroes are the various whistle-blowers, most prominently former Social Security Senior Technician Sarah Carver and former SSA Master Docket Clerk Jennifer Griffith, who tried for years to tell anybody and everybody about this massive Social Security fraud. “[They’re] the closest thing to Erin Brockovich as you could find,” notes reporter Paletta.
We also meet the real victims of Conn’s fraud: some of the hundreds of people who really had been injured or otherwise incapacitated and were receiving benefits—only to see those payments summarily halted by the SSA because they had used the services of Eric Conn’s law firm. (None of them had even met Conn himself.) The government not only stopped payments, in many cases it demanded restitution for benefits already paid out. When you meet these folks and you see the suffering they’ve endured and learn how they were unjustly punished even though they did nothing wrong, we can think of a lot worse things than “con man” to describe Eric C. Conn.