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Social Security judge accused of disability scheme

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — A retired Social Security judge in West Virginia collaborated with a lawyer to improperly award disability benefits to hundreds of applicants, according to a report released Monday by congressional investigators.

The report accuses retired administrative law Judge David B. Daugherty of scheming with lawyer Eric C. Conn to approve more than 1,800 cases from 2006 to 2010.

"By 2011, Mr. Conn and Judge Daugherty had collaborated on a scheme that enabled the judge to approve, in assembly-line fashion, hundreds of clients for disability benefits using manufactured medical evidence," said the report by the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"The report describes how one lawyer, several judges and a group of doctors took advantage of the situation and exploited the program for their own personal benefit," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said at a committee hearing Monday. "Together, they moved hundreds of claimants onto the disability rolls based on manufactured medical evidence and boilerplate decisions. As a result they saw millions of dollars flow their way, promotions at work and had bad behavior ignored."

Conn runs a law firm specializing in disability cases in Stanville, Ky., near the West Virginia border. Daugherty, who was a judge based in Huntington, W.Va., retired in 2011 after questions were raised about his relationship with Conn, the report said.

Conn appeared at Monday's Senate hearing but declined to answer senators' questions, asserting his constitutional right against self-incrimination. Daugherty also attended the hearing but left before he was called to testify, said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the committee.

Carper said Daugherty had been subpoenaed to testify. Carper said he would consult with other senators before deciding how to respond to Daugherty leaving.

Two doctors who did work for Conn's clients told the committee that they are honest doctors with nothing to hide, though one doctor, Srinivas M. Ammisetty, said it was a mistake for him to sign medical forms that Conn's office had filled out for him.

A. Bradley Adkins, a psychologist in Pikeville, Ky., said he, too, signed forms filled out by Conn's office.

A third doctor, David P. Herr of West Union, Ohio, declined to answer senators' questions, invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

According to the report, the Social Security Administration paid Conn's firm more than $4.5 million in attorney fees from cases heard by Daugherty from 2006 to 2010. In 2010, Conn was the third highest-paid disability lawyer in the country, the report said.

Investigators reviewed Daugherty's bank records and found $96,000 in unexplained cash deposits, the report said.

"From 2003 to 2011, Judge Daugherty's bank records contain regularly occurring cash deposits totaling $69,800, the source of which is unexplained in the judge's financial disclosure forms," the report said. "From 2007 to 2011, his daughter's bank records list similar cash deposits totaling another $26,200. When asked about the $96,000 in cash deposits, Judge Daugherty refused to explain their origin or the source of the funds."

Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon declined to comment on whether the Justice Department is conducting a criminal probe of the matter.

Questions about Daugherty's relationship with Conn were first raised by The Wall Street Journal in 2011.

Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That's a 45 percent increase from a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,130.

An additional 8.3 million people get Supplemental Security Income, a separately funded disability program for low-income people.

In order to qualify, people are supposed to have disabilities that prevent them from working and are expected to last at least a year or result in death.

Social Security disability claims are first processed through a network of local Social Security Administration field offices and state agencies called Disability Determination Services. About two-thirds of initial claims are rejected, according to agency statistics.

If your claim is rejected, you can ask the field office or state agency to reconsider. If your claim is rejected again, you can appeal to an administrative law judge, who is employed by Social Security.

The average processing time for a hearing before a judge is a little longer than a year, according to the agency. Daugherty approved claims for Conn's clients in as little as 30 days, the report said.

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Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.

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