What began back in late 2010 as a regional SSA scandal alleging fraud and 'case-fixing' of disability appeal claims with the Office of Disability Adjudication Review (ODAR) office in Huntington WV, now has federal authorities and US Senators focusing their attention on the national ODAR offices too. According to an inside confidential source involved with the Office of Inspector General's Office, (OIG) as the total magnitude of both the local WV scandal and overall problems within the entire ODAR completely unfolds, government officials will ultimately hold SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue accountable for what occurred.
"It's my understanding that between this scandal and other problems within his office, Astrue will be replaced at the end of his term." President Bush appointed Astrue in 2007; his six-year term ends January 19, 2013.
Since assuming his role as Commissioner, Astrue has been plagued with problems that seem to be ever mounting. There is the unsolvable three-quarter of a million plus backlog of pending disability appeal claims that sit idle years before a final decision is rendered. A high number of SSA employees are leaving the agency, and the ongoing debate on how SSA officials will fund Social Security benefits for current recipients and future generations. Now, there is the recent US Senate Subcommittees report addressing problems of policy abuse and procedures by additional Administrative Law Judges in other ODAR offices across the country.
The subcommittee began their fact-finding inquiries after this website and national media exposed how former Huntington WV Judge David Daugherty had circumvented SSA disability procedures when he and lawyer Eric C Conn were allegedly mass approving SSA disability appeal cases with little to no court hearings, conflicting medical evidence or proper judicial consideration. Daugherty is also accused of re-directing other Eric Conn cases to himself that were already assigned to other judges. During the time period between 2005 to 2011, Daugherty's overall approval rate averaged 96 to 98% compared to national average of 40%. Daugherty was approving 100% of cases where Eric Conn represented the claimant.
The Senate Subcommittee, headed up by US Senators Carl Levin and Tom Coburn, released their findings (PDF file titled "Minority Staff Report") on September 13, 2012. They made 8 specific recommendations for much needed needed changes in ODAR procedures. The recommendations are to:
1) Require government representatives at all ALJ hearings to ensure key evidence and issues are properly presented. 2) Reduce instances in which SSA ALJ's overlook evidence. 3) A need to strengthen the quality review processes. 4) Close the evidentiary record. 5) Strengthen use of medical listings and expedite updated job list 6) focused training for ALJ's. 7) Strengthen consultative examinations. 8) Reform the medical-vocational guidelines.
Related news story.
Background To The Huntington WV Scandal
The primary focus of this federal investigation surrounds former ALJ David Daugherty and Eric Conn, who are being accused of operating an elaborate appeals claims scam that lined Conn's firm with millions of dollars in SSA awards and the former judge with approval ratings as high as 98%. Daugherty made media headlines that exposed his higher than normal approval ratings & connection to attorney Conn back in January 2011. Then, in May of 2011 the Wall Street Journal published numerous articles about Daugherty and the reported connections with Eric C. Conn. The Office of Inspector General and US Attorney began investigating Daugherty and the Huntington ODAR office.
Soon after the accusations against Daugherty were in the media, he was placed on indefinite leave of absence while at the same time claiming he had done nothing wrong. By the summer of 2011, David Daugherty retired as an Administrative Law Judge. Several months later, chief ALJ Charles Andrus stepped down as lead judge. Within 2 months of the OIG beginning their investigation, hearing Office Manager David Hall abruptly resigned along with the termination of the Huntington offices IT tech employee.
Earlier this month, ALJ Charles Andrus told several office employees in Huntington that he would be resigning by the end of this year. He has been hinting about a retirement since August 2011. Andrus is accused of knowing about the connections between Daugherty and Conn but did nothing about it. He stepped down as the Chief ALJ back when the scandal first broke. Andrus has also been the focus of several federal lawsuits filed against him for alleged racial discrimination and retaliation against a whistle-blower by another former ALJ Al Tinsley who quit and went to work for Eric C. Conn's Law Firm. Tinsley has also claimed Andrus personally brokered the negotiations with Eric Conn to hire Tinsley so that he would retire and drop the lawsuits.
How much money could Eric Conn be making during this time period if Daugherty was approving 100% of his cases? He has claimed in his TV commercials and billboard advertisements that his firm handles 65% of all SSA appeals in the Huntington region office. From January 2010, to September 2010, Judges awarded 3,696 appeal claims. If Eric Conn's office actually handles 65% of all cases, that would be 2,402 awarded clients. Just using the $3,500 average that lawyers make per case, equals out to $8,407,000.00.
Huntington OIG Investigation Broadens Its Scope
According to this same government source, OIG investigators have once again returned to Huntington WV's Social Security Appeals Office. This time, their interest is in 2 new allegations that are directly related to the ongoing federal probe of Daugherty and Conn. New evidence has reportedly surfaced that another Administrative Law Judge, William Gitlow, has been allowing attorney Conn and his staff to write their clients actual appeal decisions and forward them to Gitlow. A practice that is both unheard of and forbidden by the Office of Disability Adjudication and Reviews 169 offices across the US.
E-mail evidence was reportedly discovered detailing correspondence that shows attorney Conn being permitted to write the lengthy decisions in order to both expedite the approval of his client's cases and to help boost Gitlow's percentages on disposition of pending appeals. Reportedly, this practice began after Eric C. Conn was already under OIG investigation beginning back in August of 2011 for his involvement in the case-fixing scandal with Daugherty.
OIG field agents are also looking into possible witness intimidation and harassment that leads back to at least one current management staff at the Huntington Office. The allegations surround one cooperating SSA employee with the ongoing investigation who was being followed on numerous occasions after work hours in an attempt to obtain information to hopefully discredit their credibility. OIG agents are said to have identified a person of interest who was seen following the witness on several occasions and once seen taking pictures of them while at a social gathering.
As for the overall Huntington investigation, "The US Attorney's office has been presenting evidence and witnesses to a grand jury to determine if any criminal charges are warranted" claims this same source. And, there are reports that indictments may be forthcoming as the investigation wraps up. Several of the cooperating witnesses that appeared in front of the federal grand jury are reported to be former employees of the Eric C. Conn law firm.
Eric C. Conn No Stranger To Federal Investigations
Eric C. Conn has faced other indiscretions dating back to 2002 when he elected to resign from practicing law in the US Court of Appeals for Veterans (USCAVC) after being investigated by the feds for alleged professional misconduct in reference to his clients cases filed in that court. Conn elected to forgo his practicing in the USCAVC in order to halt that investigation.
The court stipulated that, "the resignation of Eric C. Conn from the Bar of this Court, conditioned by his relinquishment of any right to apply for reinstatement or readmission, is accepted, and his name is hereby removed from the rolls of practitioners admitted to practice before this Court." September 30, 2002 PER CURIAM."
In this courts 2002 order, they stated, "Although the Court is concerned by the alleged professional misconduct of the respondent, his agreement to cease all practice before this Court provides the Court and its appellants with protection from any repetition of such conduct by him. Moreover, no appellant has filed a complaint with the Court relating to professional services provided by the respondent. Therefore, the Court will accept the respondent's resignation."
Some people say that the ongoing scandal in Huntington WV is just a single incident of corruption that does not reflect the overall ODAR system. Others believe that this situation occurred because of the intense pressure put on ALJ's and office management to drastically decrease their backlog of pending appeals. Which then caused corruption in at least one office and sloppiness throughout the ODAR offices. Some of this conjecture may be true.
Since at least 2005, the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review has come under fire for the huge backlog of disability cases that have sat for up to three years waiting for final determination if a claimant will receive benefits. Back in May 2007, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue assured Congress that SSA would correct the problem of surging growth in the number of individuals awaiting a hearing for disability benefits.
He described an ambitious plan the agency had recently launched "to eliminate the backlog of hearing requests by 2012" and also "to prevent its recurrence." At that time, appeals of 715,568 individuals were pending before what is arguably the largest court system in the world. Four years later, in March of 2011, the commissioner testified again, emphasizing his accomplishments since 2007 that included the appeals hearings backlog problem. He also testified that SSA significantly improved service and stewardship efforts.
Not exactly true according to at least one respected watchdog group.
But, information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, (TRAC) indicated that the overall number of individual claimants awaiting a hearing has not gone down but climbed to 746,712. That's 31,144 cases higher than it was when the SSA launched its expensive rehabilitation plan in 2007.
The same data shows that between February 2011 and June 2011 backlog totals showed the largest single increase from 728,013 to 746,712. (18,699)
Commissioner Astrue faces other SSA problems including the future of even being able to fund Social Security benefits. According to the 2011 Trustees' Report, without Congressional action, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund will be unable to pay full benefits beginning in 2018, just a little over six years from now. "The path we are on is unsustainable, and we are putting individuals with disabilities at risk if we do not act soon."
He sums up the total SSA picture, "There is no silver bullet, but we can't ignore fiscal reality and assume that we can go on doing business as usual. As Deputy Commissioner Colvin has said, we will do less with less. We continue to look for ways to streamline and simplify work and identify what work we can stop doing."
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