Jennifer Griffith, CFE, and Sarah Carver, CFE, spent years informing their superiors in the U.S. Social Security Administration office where they worked about an operation between a lawyer and an administrative law judge to fraudulently approve thousands of disability claims. But instead of rewarding them for uncovering a massive fraud, their bosses retaliated against them. Carver and Griffith talk to Fraud Magazine about their journey as whistleblowers and their courage to fight for the truth even when the odds were stacked against them.

When Sarah Carver, CFE, and Jennifer Griffith, CFE, met with Fraud Magazine over Zoom to talk about their experiences as whistleblowers, they’d just come off a whirlwind week in Austin, Texas, for the CFE Exam Review Course and exam. They were both successful in that endeavor and were newly minted Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs).

Carver and Griffith aren’t fraud examiners by trade — they’re paralegals who worked in a U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) field office in Huntington, West Virginia. But if you were to meet them, you wouldn’t be surprised by their success in completing the rigorous four-part exam that signifies a fraud examiner’s expertise. Indeed, they spent many years before becoming CFEs embodying the qualities required of fraud examiners. It was their determination, analytical skills and skepticism that allowed them to expose the biggest fraud against the SSA in its history and put the spotlight on a complicated bureaucratic process that they say lacks proper oversight. And it was their strong inclination for truth and justice that bolstered their resolve — and defiance — in the face of relentless retaliation on the job and threats to their personal safety and health.

This June, Carver and Griffith will be honored at the 35th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, with the Cliff Robertson Sentinel Award for their perseverance and determination in blowing the whistle on flamboyant lawyer Eric C. Conn and administrative law judge David Daugherty who colluded to rip off the SSA for $550 million. The Sentinel Award is bestowed annually to those who, without regard to personal or professional consequences, have publicly disclosed wrongdoing in business or government. Here’s the story of Griffith and Carver’s journey as whistleblowers.

The life cycle of a Social Security disability claim

In the U.S., people who can’t work because of a terminal illness or mental or physical impairment may be eligible for monthly disability benefits financed primarily through the Social Security payroll tax. About 7.4 million Americans received disability benefits as of Oct. 2023. In 2022, the U.S. spent about $143 billion on payments, which is roughly 2% of the federal budget. (See “Chart Book: Social Security Disability Insurance,” Center on Policy and Budget Priorities, Dec. 13. 2023.) Disability benefits won’t make a recipient rich; it’s generally a modest payment equivalent to remuneration from a minimum wage job. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.) The average monthly disability payment in 2023 was $1,489. [See “How Much Does Disability Pay in 2023 and 2024?” by Whitney Vandiver, Nerd Wallet, Dec. 19, 2023.]

Applying for disability benefits can be a grueling, multipart procedure, and it can take more than two years before a claim is approved and the applicant receives their payments. People first apply for benefits online, via phone or in person at one of many SSA field offices across the U.S. Claims representatives review applications for eligibility, and if they meet requirements, they forward the applications to state Disability Determination Services (DDS) offices. DDS requests medical documents from applicants’ doctors and then reviews them to determine whether applicants can receive benefits. It then sends its decisions to the SSA office, which then informs applicants whether they’ve been approved or denied. Applicants denied at the DDS stage may ask for reconsideration by the same state agency and then appeal to an administrative law judge at SSA for a hearing. It was at this stage of the process where Carver and Griffith’s work began. (See “Disability Determination Process,” U.S. Social Security Administration; “Kentucky fraudster’s disability clients remain in legal mess,” by Dylan Lovan, AP, Oct. 8, 2021; and “Steps in the SSA Disability Application Process,” SAMHSA.)

At the Huntington Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), Griffith and Carver had numerous responsibilities associated with processing and organizing disability claims files, and scheduling and preparing cases for hearings with administrative judges. Carver and Griffith, who began working in the Huntington ODAR in 2001, say that it wasn’t too long into their tenures there that they noticed something unusual going on between Conn and Daugherty. Conn had an incredibly high volume of cases that were largely being funneled to Judge Daugherty. Daugherty was approving anywhere from 90 to 99% of those benefits between 2005 and 2010. According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal story by reporter Damian Paletta, the average approval rate among all administrative judges was about 60% of cases. On just one day in Feb. 2006, Daugherty held 20 hearings spaced 15 minutes apart for Conn and his clients in a Prestonsburg, Kentucky, field office. (See “Disability-Claim Judge Has Trouble Saying ‘No’,” May 19, 2011.) Conn would later admit in a 2018 plea deal that he participated in the scheme with Daugherty and multiple doctors between 2004 and 2017. (See “Fugitive Lawyer Involved in Largest Social Security Fraud Scheme Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for His Escape and Related Crimes,” press release, Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Justice, Sept. 7, 2018.)

“He (Conn) had such a high caseload that every time we were mailing cases out, it seemed like they were all Eric Conn, Eric Conn, Eric Conn,” Carver says. She tells Fraud Magazine that it seemed like Conn’s cases got special treatment in the Huntington ODAR. “It was almost like our management was catering to Eric Conn cases.”

The art of the Conn

Disability claimants aren’t required to have a lawyer for the appeal process, but it can be helpful to have someone guide them through a complex, time-consuming process. Lawyers generally don’t make a lot of money off disability cases; the SSA sets how much attorneys can earn from successful cases — and they only get paid if their clients’ benefits are approved. The SSA caps attorney fees at 25% of a claimant’s back pay. To become a millionaire from disability cases, a lawyer would have to take on many, many cases, and they would have to win all of them. Conn was an unusually prolific lawyer with thousands of successful cases. According to CNBC, by 2010, Conn was the third-highest-paid disability lawyer in the U.S., collecting $3.9 million from the SSA that year. (See “How a country lawyer pulled off the biggest Social Security fraud ever, and why it could happen again,” by Scott Cohn, March 30, 2018.)

Many have come to know Conn because of the Apple TV documentary “The Big Conn.” As the documentary showed to great effect, Conn was an over-the-top, ubiquitous figure in the heart of impoverished Kentucky coal-mining country. (People would also come to know Carver and Griffith through the “Big Conn” as their whistleblowing efforts figured prominently in the documentary.) People driving along highways in this part of the state would see billboards with Conn’s face plastered all over them. He referred to himself as “Mr. Social Security,” and he had a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln installed alongside his law office, which was a series of connected mobile homes. He guaranteed his clients, many of whom were former coal miners and truck drivers, that he could get them their disability benefits faster than anybody else. And indeed, he did, with generous assistance from Daugherty. (See “The Big Conn” and “Disability-Claim Judge Has Trouble Saying ‘No’.”) What people would later come to know, thanks to Carver and Griffith’s efforts, was that Conn’s extraordinary success was the result of bribing doctors to falsify medical records for his clients and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal payments to Daugherty to approve his cases.

A wrench in the system

The number of cases between Conn and Daugherty was unusual, but then Griffith noticed that cases she was working to organize were turning up missing. Someone was taking them, and Griffith soon figured out it was Daugherty. And then he came to her looking for files.

“He’d say, ‘I’m looking for this file. I can’t find it. Do you have it?’ And I’d say there’s no file, there’s no hard copy, it’s just an electronic file. He couldn’t have known any of those cases existed unless he had outside information that it was coming to our office.” According to Griffith, Daugherty would’ve needed the claimants’ Social Security numbers to find them in the system. She says that she asked him to stop removing the cases because she was getting in trouble with her supervisor.

“And then he goes to my supervisor and complains about the fact that I’ve asked him to stop,” says Griffith. That’s when Carver says that she and Griffith started notifying their supervisors that something was amiss.

“This is what threw a wrench not only in his [Daugherty’s] system, but the supervisors’ system too,” says Carver. “We first started notifying them verbally, then we started the emails. We ended up having thousands of emails telling them what we were finding.”

But Griffith says that their supervisors ignored their complaints, and they realized that emails on their own weren’t enough to get traction. So, they sent emails with read receipts and delivery receipts, and they printed every email they sent to their supervisors. Carver says that printing those emails was their “saving grace,” because later they learned that their emails had been deleted.

According to Griffith, one of the problems with the reporting process in her office was that complaints had to be filed with a direct supervisor before they could report anything higher up. “It doesn’t matter if the complaint is about your supervisor,” says Griffith. “It leaves you no recourse because if you’re reporting about your supervisor or your hearing office director, that’s who you have to make those reports to. There isn’t any anonymity. There was none for us then, and we had to go outside the office.”

After exhausting all their options for reporting within their office and agency, they decided to go outside the office — and all the way to the top of the U.S. government.

“I sent a letter to the president of the United States. We went to the governor of West Virginia, who was at the time Joe Manchin. We contacted our local congressional representatives and local news media,” says Griffith. (Joe Manchin is currently a Democratic U.S. Senator. He served as governor of West Virginia from 2005 to 2010.)

But even seeking help from the top didn’t move their case forward. Carver told Fraud Magazine that part of the problem was the Social Security system itself. “Nobody wanted to touch it because even though Social Security is a bipartisan subject, politicians don’t want to get involved because they fear they’ll be perceived as taking away people’s benefits. That’s a political nightmare.”

Moreover, Griffith explained, “Social Security is a dense, boring, complicated subject, and it’s very hard to make someone understand the system as a whole and to explain where fraud might be occurring and why.”

“Does it matter that you’re [the Huntington ODAR] showing favoritism to this attorney? Like, why does that matter?”

Nobody would touch their case until The Wall Street Journal published reporter Damian Paletta’s investigation of Daugherty and Conn in 2011. Carver and Griffith served as Paletta’s sources for the story, which subsequently caught the attention of the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General, and it started its own investigation. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs also investigated the case and worked with Carver and Griffith on the investigation. They testified before the U.S. Senate in 2013 about discovering what was happening between Conn and Daughtery and their efforts to get the SSA to pay attention. (See “Senate panel uncovers millions in disability fraud,” by Jayna Omaye, Medill News Service, USA Today, Oct. 7, 2013.)

‘We were the troublemakers’

Paletta’s story detailed what Carver and Griffith were seeing in the course of their work and what was allowing Conn and Daugherty to reach such heights of success. For years, the SSA had been facing a backlog of disability benefits cases and Congress had been pressuring the agency and its field offices to push cases through the system. Conn and Daugherty were helping the Huntington ODAR hit its monthly goals.

Daugherty was reportedly fast-tracking cases by making decisions “on the record,” meaning that he was granting benefits to applicants without meeting them, hearing testimony or asking questions. He was effectively a rubber stamp for Conn’s cases. Thanks to the lawyer and the judge, Huntington ODAR became one of the top offices in the U.S. for clearing cases. (See “Disability-Claim Judge Has Trouble Saying ‘No’.”)

“Each case was just a number, and the numerical value overrode the quality,” says Carver. “We were discouraged from spending time on a case.”

“They were so entrenched in those numerical goals that it was the deciding factor in whether you were a successful or unsuccessful employee, and those goals were driven by congressional request,” explains Griffith. “Because as small as our office was, we were usually No. 1, 2 or 3 in the nation in meeting those numerical goals.”

Carver tells Fraud Magazine that her training as a paralegal made it hard for her to just push cases through the system without properly analyzing them. “We were taught to analyze everything, and it was this analytical concept that was throwing us off so much because we wanted to stop and analyze that case,” she says. “What was this case missing that could help this person? But we were discouraged from doing so.”

Carver had been her office’s union representative, and she had begun telling other employees in the office to notify her if they saw cases assigned to Daugherty. But Carver says that management in the office had started making reports unavailable to employees so they couldn’t see which cases were coming in to the office and when cases were being decided. According to Carver and Griffith, as they questioned and reported their concerns, management began telling employees in the office not to associate with them.

“We were ostracized,” says Carver. “We were just the troublemakers. They called us the troublemakers or the dark side. New employees wouldn’t be seated near us, and they were told that if they wanted to get promoted, they shouldn’t socialize with the dark side.”

Griffith says that it would be years later during the discovery phase of their whistleblower lawsuit that they’d know the full extent of how management in their office had worked to turn their fellow employees against them.

Retaliation

For all their troubles to report possible fraud, Carver and Griffith say they experienced retaliation from their superiors in repeated attempts to get them to quit their jobs. What they faced ranged from reprimands and investigations for typos and spelling mistakes in their reports to being timed for how long they spent using the bathroom. As Griffith would recount to Fraud Magazine, being timed for using the bathroom was especially egregious for her when she was pregnant.

But there were even more serious acts of retribution, such as being surveilled and followed. A judge named Charles Andrus, who was also working with Conn, hired a private investigator to follow Carver on days when she was working at home. He reportedly carried weapons. When those efforts failed to catch her engaging in any wrongdoing, she was then followed and videotaped on her days off, and recordings were fabricated and submitted to her supervisors. Carver says that she didn’t learn about the video surveillance until she testified before the Senate.

Carver says she was threatened with suspension from work right before Christmas because she didn’t number an exhibit in a case. “It was just two weeks before Christmas. They knew I was a single mother with two kids, and they used that to their advantage.”

Carver was accused of going absent without leave (AWOL) when she had to retrieve her daughter who had just been in a car accident. According to Carver, management was aware of the situation. Another time, Griffith was accused of going AWOL after giving birth and having to stay longer in the hospital. Griffith eventually resigned from the Huntington ODAR in October 2007, after receiving a poor performance review. Her doctor had also been urging her to quit, telling her that stress from the job was going to kill her.

“When I left, I probably had three or more open investigations and multiple grievances open that never were decided on,” says Griffith. “That’s because there wasn’t a way to remain anonymous and there wasn’t any oversight on these types of disciplinary actions. You’re out on a limb by yourself, and most people give up rather than continue to fight.”

Carver hung on until 2017. She’d thought that with the release of The Wall Street Journal report, testifying before the Senate and the OIG report, things would improve for her, but that was not to be.

During one disciplinary investigation, Carver says that she was moved to a desk in a corner facing a wall. She says that a camera was put outside the room and fellow employees were told by managers to stay away from her. According to Carver, she wasn’t allowed to attend staff meetings or other office functions.

“At each step we thought, hey, it’s finally out there. It’s finally over and no, it wasn’t. It got worse for me,” says Carver. “The retaliation got really bad. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse and worse. Even having two attorneys wasn’t enough to protect me at the agency.”

The fall of the Conn

After The Wall Street Journal report came out, Judge Daugherty was suspended from his job. Conn, however, continued his practice for years. It wasn’t until 2016 that a federal grand jury indicted Conn, Daugherty and psychologist Alfred Adkins for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud for submitting false medical documentation to get disability benefits for Conn’s clients. Their scheme caused the SSA to disburse almost $550 million in disability benefits. (See “Three Indicted for Alleged Social Security Fraud Scheme in Kentucky,” by Devlin Barrett and Damian Paletta, The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2016.)

Conn was also charged with money laundering, conspiring to retaliate against a witness and destruction of records in a federal investigation. Conn and Daugherty were charged with conspiring to launder monetary instruments. According to the federal grand jury indictment, Conn’s employees filled in psychological evaluations for their clients and then had Adkins sign the forms. (See “Three Indicted for Alleged Social Security Fraud Scheme in Kentucky.”)

In 2015, the SSA informed 1,500 of Conn’s former clients that their cases were being reevaluated and that they might lose their benefits. The Wall Street Journal reported that three people died by suicide after learning that they might lose their benefits. Even though Conn and his accomplices were submitting fraudulent medical data in some cases, many of his clients were disabled and genuinely eligible for assistance. Many of his former clients have gone for years without disability benefits, although in 2023, 500 of those clients reached an agreement with the SSA that would allow them to request new hearings. (See “Three Indicted for Alleged Social Security Fraud Scheme in Kentucky” and “Former Eric Conn clients learn more about settlement with SSA to get benefits reinstated,” by Gil McClanahan, WCHS, Jan. 12, 2023.)

Conn pleaded guilty and admitted that he paid Daugherty around $10,000 a month to award benefits to more than 1,700 clients. Daugherty was convicted of fraud and died after serving four years in prison. Judge Andrus was charged with conspiracy to retaliate against an informant and was sentenced to six months in prison. (See “Fugitive Lawyer Involved in Largest Social Security Fraud Scheme Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for His Escape and Related Crimes,” press release, Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Justice, Sept. 7, 2018.)

In 2017, Conn was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but before he could be taken into custody, he cut off his electronic ankle-monitoring bracelet, and with the help of Curtis Lee Wyatt, he fled across the Mexican border to Honduras. He spent six months there before he was caught by Honduran authorities in December 2017 and sent back to the U.S. He was subsequently sentenced to another 15 years in prison. Wyatt, for his part in Conn’s escape, was sentenced to seven months in prison. (See “Fugitive Lawyer Involved in Largest Social Security Fraud Scheme Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for His Escape and Related Crimes.”)

A meeting with Mr. Social Security

In the years after Carver and Griffith left the SSA office in Huntington, they’ve shown not only a steely resolve for the retaliation they faced but also a remarkable ability to connect with the various people associated with Conn’s fraud. They’ve befriended some of Conn’s former employees and have met his daughter — and they’ve connected with Mr. Social Security himself. Indeed, in the “Big Conn,” he calls Carver and Griffith the true heroes of the story. They say that Conn has been the only person who’s apologized to them for their ordeal. Carver even visited him in prison, and she recounted that meeting for Fraud Magazine.

Carver and Griffith would sometimes visit one of Conn’s paralegals. They happened to be visiting the paralegal one day when Conn called her from prison. That’s when they arranged the meeting. Conn was in a prison 15 minutes from Carver’s home, so she made the short trek to meet him. What transpired was an incredible human moment between an unlikely pair. According to Carver, they talked about Conn’s daughter starting college and about his mother dying and how he was unable to attend her funeral because he was in prison. They ended up talking for three hours.

“I was very nervous at first,” recounts Carver. “And we talked, and there wasn’t an odd moment. Not one silent moment between us in those three hours. It was like we had known each other forever.” According to Carver, he answered every question she had and was forthcoming about his role in the retaliation and surveillance.

“We knew that he wasn’t the mastermind of the whole thing — he was a party to it. He couldn’t have done it on his own without the help of others on the inside,” says Carver. “That’s why I wanted to talk to him. I had questions for him because I wanted to know answers to those questions that we couldn’t get from management.”

Carver says that during the jailhouse meeting, he confirmed suspicions she had about the retaliation. “I found out what we kind of already realized, but it was so much more,” says Carver. “Management was pitching him [Conn] against us and me in particular, and that he was more or less told that they were handling everything on their side of it and not to worry about it. They had it all under control. They had us under control.”

According to Carver, it was Judge Andrus who approached Conn about getting Carver fired. “He came to him and said, ‘Hey, I have an idea. Let’s try to get rid of Sarah. And this is how we can do it,’” says Carver. “And he agreed to it, because, you know, he didn’t know my schedule. He didn’t know what it would take to get me fired. That was obviously the management side that was putting that on the table.”

Fighting on

Today, Carver and Griffith are writing a book and have started a business guiding people through the process of applying for Social Security disability benefits. They also speak in public about fighting corruption, whistleblowing, fraud detection and empowering women. But even with new plans and opportunities, they still have the unfinished business of receiving the recognition they feel they deserve from the U.S. government for uncovering Conn and Daugherty’s fraud. Despite winning their federal whistleblower lawsuit in 2018, Carver and Griffith say the U.S. Justice Department has yet to honor their settlement agreement. (See “Judge Announces Settlement In Conn Whistleblower Case,” by Web Staff, LEX 18, April 26, 2018 and “Sarah Carver & Jennifer Griffith,” CarverGriffith.)

“This consumed so many years of our lives. That’s all our children grew up knowing,” Carver tells Fraud Magazine.

“My daughter was born as this started and she’s never known a world where Eric Conn isn’t a name,” says Griffith.

Now, they talk about their experiences and push for reforms that they think will better protect government whistleblowers and provide stronger oversight of the SSA disability program. Some of those reforms include an outside oversight committee that whistleblowers could go to instead of reporting wrongdoing through their direct supervisors, such as what Carver and Griffith had to do. Currently, if a federal employee does face retaliation for blowing the whistle, they may file a claim with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), an independent, quasi-judicial agency that rules on whistleblower retaliation cases. Many whistleblower advocates contend that the MSPB is insufficient and hostile to whistleblowers. (See “The Decades-Long Fight for Court Access for Federal Employee Whistleblowers,” by Geoff Schweller, Whistleblower Network News, July 22, 2021.)

They would also like to see stronger protections for government whistleblowers, such as having access to jury trials. They couldn’t sue people depending on their level of government service, and in their case, they were unable to sue senior executive officials.

“These officials were complicit in fraud and need to answer for their actions,” says Carver.

As Carver and Griffith reflect on what sustained them during those difficult times, they both agreed it was tenacity — and stubbornness. “We’re very hardheaded,” says Griffith. Carver says it was also a matter of winning the fight.

“When you’re backed into a corner, you have no other choice but to fight your way out of that corner, and that’s what we did,” says Carver. “That’s what led us down the path because we’re still fighting.”

Jennifer Liebman, CFE, is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. Contact her at jliebman@ACFE.com.

[See sidebar: “Advice for whistleblowers from Sentinel Award winners Sarah Carver, CFE, and Jennifer Griffith, CFE”.]




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