By BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A fugitive Kentucky lawyer at the center of a nearly $600 million Social Security fraud case is believed to still be in the country, but "we're not sure how long that will be," an FBI official said Wednesday.
A $20,000 reward was offered for information leading authorities to Eric Conn, the flamboyant disability lawyer who disappeared last week, a month before his sentencing. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
Conn pleaded guilty in March to stealing from the federal government and bribing a judge. He had been ordered to pay the government tens of millions of dollars.
The FBI is working with multiple agencies and is pursuing numerous leads, said Amy Hess, special agent in charge of the FBI in Kentucky.
"We believe he is still in the country, but we are not sure how long that will be," she told reporters.
Conn's electronic monitoring device meant to track his whereabouts was found Friday evening along Interstate 75 in Lexington, and the FBI was notified soon thereafter, Hess said.
Authorities have no information to indicate that Conn was assisted in fleeing but have not ruled it out, she said. Hess warned that anyone helping Conn would be held accountable by law enforcement.
"It appears that he fled by his own free will, that he chose to do so," Hess said. "He knew what he was doing."
Asked if he was considered dangerous, she said: "He is desperate to escape punishment and be held accountable for his crime, and desperate people do desperate things."
Conn started his law practice in a trailer in 1993 and built it into one of the most lucrative disability law firms in the country.
He portrayed himself as "Mr. Social Security," a persona fueled by outlandish TV commercials and small-scale replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial at his office in eastern Kentucky.
His empire crumbled when federal investigators uncovered he had been bribing a doctor and judge to approve disability claims based on fake medical evidence.
As part of his plea deal in March, he agreed to pay the federal government $5.7 million and to reimburse Social Security $46 million. A federal judge ordered Conn to pay $12 million in damages and $19 million in penalties to the government and two former Social Security employees who tried to expose the scheme. Conn also is facing a liability judgment from a class-action lawsuit brought by his former clients.
Conn was a frequent world traveler as he built his law firm. Hess declined comment Wednesday when asked if authorities found any signs he had transferred money outside the country to set up a refuge.
Scott White, Conn's attorney, said he has not heard from Conn.
"Let's hope Eric does the right thing and reaches out to surrender," White said in an email Wednesday.
Hundreds of Conn's clients in the impoverished coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia have been fighting to keep their disability checks. Ned Pillersdorf, who represents Conn's former clients, has said the anger toward Conn "is overwhelming."
"We need Eric Conn to face justice," Hess said. "We need him to come back and be accountable for his actions in defrauding not only the government, (but also) the U.S. taxpayer."
This story has been edited to clarify that authorities believe the lawyer is still in the country, but don't know for sure.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.