True Crime Tuesdays: The Big Conn
Helen Archer | On 21, Jun 2022
The Big Conn is a rather strange documentary. Over four hour-long episodes it purports to tell the story of Eric C Conn, a Kentucky attorney who perpetrated the biggest Social Security Disability Insurance scam in history, teaming up with a dodgy judge and medical examiner to ensure his clients received the disability benefits they claimed for. And yet, despite the serious repercussions of the scam, much of it is portrayed here like a lighthearted Bond movie, using Conn’s own words to recreate the thriller-like narrative he spun for himself. It actively seems to side-swerve the larger systemic issues at play, focusing instead on the public image of one man.
Creators James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte – the team behind McMillion$ -go for a fast-paced approach, presumably to inject a little excitement into what would otherwise be a rather dry retelling of a tale first reported by Damian Paletta in 2011, later becoming the subject of a 60 Minutes investigation. Paletta’s exposé provides the content for much of the first episode, as he heads to Kentucky to meet two whistleblowers, Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, who worked in the social services administration. They present the journalist with masses of evidence regarding the ongoing malfeasance, but pretty soon Paletta is chased out of town after hearing about threats to his life. Carver and Griffith, meanwhile, find themselves ostracised at work, and, in Carver’s case, followed and filmed by shadowy forces as she went about her daily business.
In among all this is the telling of Conn’s story, taken from the “manifesto” he wrote detailing his eventual run from the law. While a lot of self-mythologising is at play, as he portrays himself as some sort of international man of mystery, he is in fact a fairly fascinating character. It’s easy to see why the filmmakers would be so inclined to centre his personality at the expense of so much else.
Apparently, in the early 2000s, you couldn’t bump into many people in Pikeville who hadn’t heard of Conn. Billing himself as “Mr Social Security”, he bombarded highways with billboards of himself, featured on radio and TV, enlisted musicians to make songs about him, and thrilled members of the public with selfies at grocery stores. Like Saul Goodman, he erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty outside his office, beside another of Abraham Lincoln. His flashy, extravagant lifestyle was likewise hard to miss. Enjoying regular travel abroad, where he met some of his many, many wives, he also relished putting on parties at his mansion. The great and the good of Kentucky society were invited to enjoy some specialist hospitality in the basement, which included at least one stripper pole and a portrait of Conn as Luke Skywalker. Later, we discover he owned a brothel in Thailand, where, at one point, a dancer was apparently turned on by the boa constrictor she used in her act, clearing out the club in the process.
This – as well as various other escapades, including a yacht accident that resulted in a near-drowning, and Conn’s eventual arrest – is recreated by actors. It all gives the documentary something of the feel of an overlong, drawn-out caper, with Conn as the character he portrayed himself as in his diaries. By using Conn’s diaries as source material, it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction – which presents a problem in a true crime docuseries.
Meanwhile, in the background, are the tales of real misery. Some of Conn’s clients are introduced around halfway through the series, telling their stories about the battle for their benefits after the social securities administration cut them off without warning when Conn was being investigated. Many are still waiting to be reinstated; some died by suicide. It is worth noting that in countless cases, it is not Conn they blame for this, but the administration themselves.
Indeed, throughout the series, it is not clear exactly where you’re meant to stand on the man. Yes, along with his co-conspirators Judge David Daugherty and Dr Bradley Adkins – each of these men’s suicide attempts are also documented in the series (and, in Daughety’s case, footage of him preparing his car with a hosepipe in the exhaust, before being rescued, is screened) – he lined his own pockets with taxpayers’ money, but the majority of the disability claims made were not in fact bogus. They were merely bypassing the months-long process by which they were evaluated. It was not Conn who deprived them unceremoniously of their benefits; it was the State itself.
Furthermore, towards the end of the final episode, it is alluded that this is far wider in scope than the fraud of one man, or even three, and that Conn is a fall guy for the system. Certainly, there was a culture of silence in the social security offices, as well as higher up – and, seemingly, this culture isn’t limited to Kentucky. While it would have doubtless been a far less exuberant documentary if it had focused on the wider problem instead of the deeply flawed personalities of a few participants, it would, nevertheless, have been a more meaningful one.