Widespread fraud reported in Social Security Administration‘s Disability Program
A two-year investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has found widespread fraud in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Disability Program. It appears that disability payments have skyrocketed because the SSA’s attempt to reduce the back-log of disability cases has forced administrative law judges to hold hearings without reviewing the medical evidence in the case files, decide cases without holding hearings, and approve cases of claimants that are not disabled.
The fraud is so rampant, and disability cases have so proliferated in recent years, that the Social Security‘s Disability Trust Fund may run out of money in only 18 months, says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., whose office undertook the investigation.
Coburn’s report on widespread fraud, released Monday, focuses in large part on a veritable “disability claim factory” allegedly run by Attorney Eric C. Conn out of his small office in Stanville, Kentucky, a region of the country where 10 to 15 percent of the population receives disability payments.
(Judge David Daugherty)
The report documents how Attorney Conn allegedly worked together with Social Security Administrative Law Judge David Daugherty (ALJ) and a team of favored doctors with checkered pasts, including suspended licenses in other states, who rubber stamped approval of disability claims. In most cases, the claims had been prepared in advance with nearly identical language by staffers in Conn’s law office.
The report found that over the past six years, Attorney Conn allegedly paid five doctors almost $2 million to provide favorable disability opinions for his claimants.
In 2010, the last year for which records are available, Judge Daugherty approved 1375 disability cases prepared by Attorney Conn’s office and denied only 4 of them – an approval rate that other administrative law judges have described as nearly impossible.
The average disability-benefit approval rate among all administrative judges is about 60% of cases. But there are Daugherty equivalents dotted across the country. In the first half of fiscal 2011, 27 judges awarded benefits 95% of the time, not counting those who heard just a handful of cases. More than 100 awarded benefits to 90% or more of applicants, according to agency statistics.
Judge Daugherty, 75 years old, processed more cases than all but three judges in the U.S. He had a wry view of his less-generous peers. “Some of these judges act like it’s their own damn money we’re giving away,” Mr. Daugherty told a fellow Huntington judge, Algernon Tinsley, who worked in the same office until last year, Mr. Tinsley recalled.
Judge Daugherty was a standout in a judicial system that has lost its way, say numerous current and former judges. Judges say their jobs can be arduous, protecting the sometimes divergent interests of the applicant and the taxpayer.
Some former judges and staff said one reason Judge Daugherty was allowed to continue processing so many cases was because he single-handedly helped the office hit its monthly goals. Staff members can win bonuses and promotions if these goals are surpassed as part of performance reviews.
Critics blame the Social Security Administration, which oversees the disability program, charging that it is more interested in clearing a giant backlog than ensuring deserving candidates get benefits. Under pressure to meet monthly goals, some judges decide cases without a hearing. Some rely on medical testimony provided by the claimant’s attorney.
The report found, “Judge Daugherty telephoned the Conn law firm each month and identified a list of Mr. Conn’s disability claimants to whom the judge planned to award benefits. Judge Daugherty also indicated, for each listed claimant, whether he needed a “physical” or “mental” opinion from a medical professional indicating the claimant was disabled.”
Coburn’s report found that, “over a four-year period from 2006 to 2010, the Social Security Administration paid Mr. Conn over $4.5 million in attorney fees.” And that, “Mr. Conn was the third highest paid disability law firm in the country due to its receipt of over $3.9 million in attorney fees from the Social Security Administration.”
The report says that when Senate staffers and the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General began an investigation based on tips from whistle blowers, Attorney Conn and Judge Daugherty began communicating with disposable, pre-paid cell phones. It also alleges they contracted with a local shredding company to destroy 13 tons of documents. Attorney Conn also allegedly destroyed all the computer hard drives in his office.
In 2011, the SSA placed Daugherty on administrative leave. He retired shortly after that.
Attorney Conn’s legal fate is now in the hands of the Justice Department.
The alleged fraud highlights an endemic problem in Social Security disability benefit awards. The Coburn report says a random examination of 300 case files by Congressional staff found more than a quarter of the case files “failed to properly address insufficient, contradictory, or incomplete evidence,” suggesting a high rate of fraud or abuse.
Disability payments have skyrocketed across the U.S. in recent years. At the end of August 2013, more than 14 million Americans were receiving disability benefits The Social Security Administration has blamed aging baby boomers and the lingering effects of the recession as two causes, but another reason disability payments have skyrocketed appears to be the SSA’s attempt to reduce the back-log of disability cases has forced judges to hold hearings without reviewing the medical evidence in the case file, decide cases without holding hearings, and approve cases of claimants that are not disabled.
That, in turn , has led to less scrutiny of individual case files, which can be hundreds of pages long.
Social Security Administration officials acknowledge they are trying to clear a backlog of 730,000 cases. But they say they remain focused on ensuring taxpayer money isn’t wasted. “We have an obligation to the people in need to provide them their benefits if they qualify, but we also have an obligation to the taxpayer not to give benefits to people who don’t qualify,” said the former SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) An eastern Kentucky attorney at the center of a national disability fraud investigation is breaking his silence. Floyd County attorney Eric Conn says “the truth will be forthcoming” and for others not to be so quick to judge.
A congressional report accuses Conn of scheming with retired administrative law Judge David B. Daugherty to approve more than 1,800 disability cases from 2006 to 2010.
“I have practiced Social Security disability law for twenty years. I have advertised extensively and represented every claimant to the best of my ability,” wrote Conn in a statement sent to WKYT. “When changes in the law occurred, I studied those changes in an effort to better represent the people who put their faith in me. I have served my clients with honor and dignity.”
Before a senate hearing on Monday, October 7, 2013 Conn refused to answer questions, a former worker claimed he called doctors responsible for signing off on the reports “whore doctors” because they didn’t question the information.
Allegations in a more than 160-page report from a U.S. Senate committee include that Conn “used his law practice to exploit key vulnerabilities in a critical federal safety net program and became wealthy in the process, “inappropriate collusion,” and the “collaborated on a scheme that enabled the judge to approve, in assembly-line fashion, hundreds of clients for disability benefits using manufactured medical evidence.”
Attorney Conn – said to be the third highest paid disability lawyer in the country – stood before a senate hearing Monday, October 7, where four witnesses testified against him. He’s accused of perpetrating massive fraud against the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Daugherty is said to have awarded an unusually high number of benefits totaling $ 2.5-billion while Conn would seek out doctors with suspicious credentials.
“He called them whore doctors because you could get them to do what you want and they were cheaper,” said Melina Hicks who worked for Conn.
The report claims these doctors would sign a claimant’s form — paving the way for Judge David Daugherty to award benefits.
One in three of the cases reviewed revealed identical paperwork.
During this time, Conn received $4.5 million in lawyers fees paid by SSA.
Jennifer Griffith and her co-worker Sarah Carver also testified Monday. They processed disability claims in Huntington, West Virginia.
In 2011, they filed a federal lawsuit against Conn and Daugherty under the false claims act which allows whistle blowers to get a portion of money recovered in fraud cases.
“With Judge Dougherty and Eric Conn, what I seen was 100 percent// if you look at that statistic alone, what’s the likelihood that every claimant who walks into your office is disabled,” said Carver who is a senior case technician for the SSA.
In a “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sunday, October 6, CBS News tracked down Conn.
When reporter Steve Kroft asked Conn to talk about his relationship with the former judge and his incredible success in disability court, Conn didn’t elaborate.
“Boy, that’s tempting. Oh, I would love to comment on some of that. But not – I’m really sorry, I don’t think I should right now,” Conn told CBS News.
At Monday’s hearing, he remained even more restrained.
“I respectfully assert my constitutional right not to testify here today, sir,” Attorney Conn told committee members.
Judge Daugherty left the hearing before he was called to testify.
More than 11-million Americans receive disability insurance. That’s up 20 percent in the last six years.
Sen. Tom Coburn who spear-headed the investigation says that this case is just one example of widespread abuse.
“Some in congress refuse to acknowledge that the disability programs are broken and in dire need of significant oversight. People who are truly disabled will pay the price of our dithering,” said Sen. Coburn.
Nov. 02, 2013
HUNTINGTON — An investigation into the Huntington Office of Disability and Adjudication Review was launched after the publication of a Wall Street Journal article in 2011 outlining the relationship between disability lawyer Eric C. Conn and Administrative Law Judge(ALJ) David Daugherty.
Conn ordered a massive destruction of files at his office, according to a report from the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and testimony at a Congressional hearing last month.
ALJ Daugherty, then 75 years old, called Conn’s firm multiple times in the days after the article appeared, but Conn refused to talk to the judge on his law firm’s phone lines, the Congressional report found.
The report states the judge left a message on Conn’s home phone that said:
“OK. There are those of us who know the D.A. There are those of us who know the circuit judge. There are those of us who have an inside track and hear some things. We need to talk. If you don’t want to, it’s your loss. You need to contact me … You need to do it. There are things you need to know. Good-bye.”
After that, the report alleges, ALJ Daugherty and Conn communicated through the use of disposable prepaid cell phones so the calls couldn’t be tracked.
ALJ Daugherty was placed on administrative leave pending investigation and retired in 2011. Judge Charlie Andrus also stepped down as chief justice of the Huntington office, though he continued to serve as a judge until being placed on leave pending an investigation and retiring this year.
ALJ Debra Bice, chief administrative law judge (Chief ALJ) for the entire Office of Disability and Adjudication Review under the Social Security Administration (SSA/ODAR), told a colleague that when she questioned Andrus on ALJ Daugherty, “he couldn’t give an honest assessment of what was going on.”
While Andrus testified before a Senate committee investigating Social Security fraud earlier this month, Conn exercised his 5th Amendment right not to testify on evidence that might incriminate himself.
Despite receiving a federal subpoena, ALJ Daugherty did not show up for the hearing.
Huntington office workers Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith gave detailed testimony on the dysfunction of their workplace, and two of Eric Conn’s former employees also testified.
“Those women, the ones who spoke out, they are extremely brave and deserve a lot of credit,” said ALJ Daniel Kemper, a former judge and colleague of ALJ Daugherty in the Huntington office.
Shortly after the Congressional hearings, Barboursville Police, responding to a call of what the department called a possible suicide attempt, found ALJ Daugherty passed out in a car with a garden hose duct-taped to the exhaust pipe and running into the vehicle. An empty bottle of liquor and an empty pill bottle were also found, according to police.
ALJ Daugherty was revived and spent an unknown number of days at an area hospital before being released.
Just how Huntington Administrative Law Judge David “D.B.” Daugherty managed to be one of the most productive Social Security Administration judges in the country in the later years of his career was something of a mystery to his co-workers and fellow judges. ALJ Daugherty, who became an administrative law judge in 1990, was hardly ever in his office and rarely conducted hearings, according to a report issued by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last month after it looked into possible abuses in the Huntington Social Security office.
The report and recent Congressional testimony allege ALJ Daugherty abused an initiative by the Social Security Administration urging judges to decide between 500 to 700 cases per year to clear some of the system’s backlog.
Daugherty well exceeded those marks, moving thousands of disability claims per year, almost all of which he approved by simply looking at a file and making a decision while rarely conducting hearings. When those hearings were conducted, it was at a break-neck pace.
When a fellow judge expressed concern over moving cases quickly, Judge Daugherty told him “You’re just going to have to learn what corners to cut,” according to the report.
The document indicates Judge Daugherty engaged in this behavior for years even before the 2007 initiative, and perhaps made himself indispensable because he exceeded numeric goals and helped put the Huntington Office of Disability and Adjudication Review among the most productive offices in the country.
But the volume of cases didn’t match what colleagues observed of the judge’s work ethic.
The report states one administrative law judge in an email called Daugherty “intellectually lazy,” and that was “probably his most obvious trait.”
Another colleague said Daugherty was “A spoiled little boy who became a judge” who “sought the easiest way out” in his work.
The 266-page congressional investigative report, Congressional testimony and media reports allege Daugherty worked with Kentucky disability attorney Eric C. Conn to abuse the Social Security Administration by awarding unearned disability benefits to so many clients that Conn became the third-highest-earning disability attorney in the United States at one point.
The report also reveals that Judge Daugherty approved benefits in thousands of other cases that had no connection to Conn.
Decisions made by Daugherty from 2005 through 2011 to award disability benefits to claimants cost Social Security more than $2.5 billion, according to the report. His 99.7 approval rating over a two-year monitored period was well above the national average of 60 percent.
In 2010, Judge Daugherty was the third-most productive ALJ judge out of 1,500 judges nationwide, deciding 1,411 cases. Of those, 530, or roughly 37 percent, were claimants represented by Conn. Daugherty awarded benefits in 1,410 of the cases. He denied benefits only once.
The report states it was a running joke in the Huntington Office of Disability and Adjudication Review that if someone was looking for Judge Daugherty, “you should not look in his office.”
Various fellow judges and even some office personnel brought it to the attention of management numerous times that Judge Daugherty would sign in, disappear for the day, then return and sign out as if he had worked eight hours. Sometimes he even gave himself extra hours worked. The judges do not receive extra pay for overtime, but can earn extra leave.
The report states that Daugherty’s behavior when it came to time and attendance was “a constant source of tension” in the Huntington office.
One of Daugherty’s critics in that regard was fellow judge ALJ Daniel Kemper.
“It was extremely frustrating,” the now-retired Kemper said in an interview with The Herald-Dispatch recently. “It’s one of the reasons that I left.”
Kemper and Daugherty were sworn in together in 1990, and assigned to the Huntington office. Kemper said he spent three weeks in training with Daugherty, who had previously been a circuit judge in Cabell County from 1977 through 1984.
Kemper and other justices issued complaints to Huntington Office Chief Justice (HOCALJ) Charlie Andrus multiple times over a period of years regarding the attendance and sign-in issues, but Daugherty was never disciplined.
The report states that Andrus tried on several occasions to kick the complaints up to his superiors, who told the justice it was his responsibility to manage such an issue, with one official saying, “I think Judge Andrus wants someone else to do his job.”
Kemper contended in the congressional report that Daugherty was never disciplined because he moved a high volume of cases.
Former fellow judge William Gitlow wrote to a colleague: “We have Judge Daugherty here who scans the master docket each month, pays 90+% of the time and gets out 80 to 100 cases a month. So we make our numbers each month. Without him we would not. Ever.”
Documents also show that in the case of another Huntington judge who only decided about 20 cases per month, HOCALJ Andrus moved quickly to conduct a thorough investigation of alleged time card abuse.
After a Wall Street Journal article about Daugherty’s relationship with Conn was published in May 2011, Kemper, who retired in 2007, said he was floored by statements Daugherty made to local media.
Daugherty said in those interviews that he moved a lot of cases because he loved his job and applied himself to the task of relieving a backlog of cases.
“He was claiming he got all these cases because he was such a hard worker,” Kemper said. “… His contention that he worked so hard could be refuted just by his time and attendance records.”
Kemper said he had no idea where Daugherty went every day.
” … there was nothing I had seen,” Kemper said. “I didn’t go so far as to make an individual effort to follow him around.”
Enter Eric Conn
The committee report indicates that Daugherty didn’t work hard, but fast.
He decided most of his cases “on the record,” meaning he didn’t conduct a hearing with the claimant, but awarded benefits just by looking at the case file.
In relation to Conn, since at least 2006, Daugherty would call the attorney’s office and read off a list of names and Social Security numbers of Conn’s clients who were on the judge’s docket, referred to as the “DB list,” and tell Conn or his office employees what type of medical evidence he needed to approve the case, investigators found.
Conn would then take disability forms that were already filled out to doctors to sign. Conn allegedly paid local physicians he referred to as “whore doctors” anywhere from $300 to $650 per form, according to Congressional testimony and the committee report.
Daugherty would then write favorable decisions for the client, using variations on the same language in nearly every case, the report states. It also said Daugherty would have Conn change the onset date of a condition so that records of previous denials wouldn’t factor in because the judge would be supposedly looking at a new medical diagnosis.
Many of those cases were moved onto Daugherty’s docket by the judge himself, according to the report and testimony. Andrus was bombarded by complaints from other judges and docket clerks that Daugherty was taking cases that hadn’t been assigned yet, or, in some cases, had already been assigned to other judges.
Andrus would promise to discuss the issue with Daugherty, but the judge was never disciplined, according to the report.
Daugherty was questioned about his relationship with Conn as early as 2002, but deflected any criticism back on Andrus, alleging the chief judge had an inappropriate social relationship with the attorney.
Andrus admitted he had met once with Conn for a meal, and had gone to a movie with the attorney. He also said Conn offered him all-expenses-paid trips to Brazil and Russia, which Andrus said he flatly turned down due to conflict-of-interest issues.
At times, Daugherty made some rather striking allegations about his superior.
In replying to questions from a higher judge about his social relationship with Conn, Andrus said “This is exactly what I was talking about when dealing with Judge Daugherty. At least this time he did not accuse me of doing cocaine in my office.”
When judge Daugherty did conduct hearings, they were done in assembly-line fashion, according to his fellow judges.
Daugherty would review Conn’s cases in the Huntington office’s Prestonsburg, Ky., satellite office, which was close to Conn’s legal practice.
“I would be with (Daugherty) in Prestonsburg, and you would see Eric Conn bring in these scores of people at one time,” Kemper said. “(Daugherty) would finish 20 cases in the time it took me to do two or three.”
According to the report, Daugherty would conduct hearings in 15-minute increments, while a single hearing for another judge would take 45 minutes to an hour.
But in most of the cases involving Conn’s clients, Daugherty opted for making “on the record” decisions based on case files and negating the need for hearings.
According to the congressional report, Daugherty conducted 80 hearings for 481 of Conn’s clients he approved for benefits in 2006. Those hearings were conducted over a span of four days.
In 2007, Daugherty saw only four of 509 clients he handled for Conn, with all of the hearings conducted in one day. He didn’t conduct hearings for any of Conn’s 429 clients he approved for benefits in 2008. In 2009 and 2010, he saw a total of five of Conn’s 981 clients who were granted benefits. In 2011, before his suspension, Daugherty saw 18 of 366 clients he approved for Conn, all in one day.
In one instance in 2002, Daugherty canceled a Prestonsburg docket of 30 cases and granted all the claimants benefits using the on-the-record method of case review. However, several court employees needed for the hearings had already been scheduled and paid to be at the Prestonsburg office.
That prompted Andrus to send out a memo to the entire Huntington office asking all cancelations be cleared through him. Regional Chief Justice at the time, Judge Frank Cristaudo, who operated out of the Philadelphia office, wrote a memo requesting that Daugherty be officially reprimanded.
“To state that 30 hearings were canceled and 30 on-the-record decisions issued to help the agency meet performance goals suggests possible impropriety and flawed decisions,” Cristaudo wrote.
Cristaudo had drafted a reprimand and agency leaders met in December 2002 to decide if Daugherty should be disciplined. According to the report, the letter was never sent due to agency concerns regarding judicial independence.
That phrase — “judicial independence” — was one that Andrus would use time and again while being grilled by a U.S. Senate panel last month on why Daugherty was never disciplined.
According to the report, Andrus did note that Conn would frequently cancel hearings if the case wasn’t on Daugherty’s docket.
He said he confronted Conn directly about this, and Conn remarked “Well, it was good while it lasted.”
According to the report, Daugherty continued to move Conn’s cases to his docket until the Wall Street Journal article was published. That’s when Andrus put a strict lockdown on moving cases and even put a stop to a custom schedule the chief judge had designed that made sure Conn’s cases were heard before any others.
Daugherty did not attend a Congressional hearing on SSA fraud despite a subpoena from the federal government.
Daugherty said he explained his absence in an email through his attorney to the committee, but did not reveal its contents to The Herald-Dispatch.
(Fields, Ben; West-Va Hearld-Dispatch)
During the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security hearing on Thursday January 16th, Rep. Tim Griffin (R- Ark.) raised questions about the disability program’s efficiency and accuracy in the wake of recent high-profile fraud cases.
Social Security Administration Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll and SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin testified before the subcommittee about the SSA’s ability to root out fraud and handle employees who are implicated in a scheme.
Colvin testified that 99 percent of disability payments are made correctly. Griffin, however, noted recent disability schemes in New York, Puerto Rico and West Virginia and challenged the accuracy of Colvin’s claim.
That talking point, Griffin said, “needs to be erased” because the nature of fraud makes it impossible to know how rampant abuse of Social Security disability has become.
Griffin also questioned the SSA’s ability to reprimand and fire SSA employees who are investigated or implicated in disability schemes.
“…We all know that in order to fire someone, they do not have to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law applying (the) beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Griffin said. “That’s not the standard to fire people.”
O’Carroll said the preference is to place an employee on leave without pay while investigating criminal activities; however, sometimes employees are left in place and monitored in an effort to identify co-conspirators.
Ms. Colvin is running the agency until the White House nominates a commissioner, and the White House has not signaled when it might move on the vacancy.