A two-year congressional study into a West Virginia Social Security office found that a prominent lawyer, a judge and several doctors profited by fraudulently getting the federal government to award benefits to 1,800 people.
Whistleblowers speaking Monday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee detailed how managers at a Huntington Social Security disability office facilitated a scheme to exploit the system for years. The investigation charged that Eric Conn, the third-highest-paid Social Security lawyer in the country, worked with a judge to overturn benefit denials for hundreds of claimants without any interference from the local Social Security office. The judge approved as much as 99 percent of the cases brought to him.
"It was a mass collusion between a judge and an attorney," said Sarah Carver, a senior case technician at the Huntington office. "It was something that was very noticeable within days of my employment and it just increased. And it was done in such openness. It wasn't something that was going on behind the scenes."
Carver, who has worked for the Social Security administration since 2001, said she was harassed and stalked after she tried to notify superiors of discrepancies in the case files. Other witnesses who worked for the court and for Conn reported similar intimidation tactics as they tried to bring attention to the problem. One former employee said she was ordered by Conn to destroy documents after an investigation began.
Two of the doctors who assisted by rubber-stamping disability paperwork testified they did not know Conn was attempting to defraud the system. Bradley Adkins, a Kentucky doctor, admitted that there were "probably zero" patients brought to his practice who he did not conclude were disabled. He was paid $350 for each visit and for a brief period of time worked out of Conn's office.
"It was a mistake to do," Adkins said.
Another doctor, David Herr of Ohio, pleaded the Fifth Amendment. "It never dawned on me that there was anything less than legitimate about it."
After listening to more than three and half hours of testimony critical of his practice, Conn also chose not to testify. In a letter to the committee, Conn's attorney said it was "an unnecessary expenditure of time and resources to go through a process that will not provide the committee with any additional information" and accused the committee of a media smear campaign against his client.
The investigation sheds light on a disability benefit system that has grown increasingly and problematically streamlined to reduce the backlog of cases, said Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking Republican on the committee who spearheaded the report. Congress has put too much emphasis on the quantity of disability cases judges must review every year, opening the door for widespread fraud, he said.
The findings provide greater ammunition for Republicans as they seek to rein in federal entitlements.
"Congress has acted as if getting people into the program is more important than doing oversight of the program," Coburn, R-Okla., said. "I hope today's findings encourage others to take a hard look at this program and support much needed reforms for this program that last year supported almost 11 million Americans with $136.9 billion."
While Democrats conceded the need to protect taxpayer dollars and were critical of the Social Security Administration's action in this case, they also stressed that Congress should not use it as an opportunity to eliminate a safety net needed by millions of people.
"I have certainly some initial hesitance to extrapolate beyond the case at hand," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. "I think we need to dig further and figure out how widespread it is."
Social Security Administration staff were not able to testify Monday to answer some of those questions due to the government shutdown.
"Look at what it has caused. Look at what one judge and one attorney cost the taxpayers," said Jennifer Griffith, who worked for the Huntington Social Security office. "There needs to be more safeguards in place."