Shortly after I moved into my current home in the early 2010s, a billboard was put up just down the road for Eastern Kentucky attorney Eric C. Conn. Since I could see it from my bedroom window, I literally woke up every morning to the smiling face of “Mr. Social Security” in his dashing pose with his suit jacket draped over his shoulder.
It was easy to laugh at Conn with his silly TV commercials and those countless billboards. But what was really going on was anything but funny as Conn was involved in a Social Security fraud scheme that cost the government more than half a billion dollars. Now, the entire story has been recounted in the new Apple TV+ documentary, “The Big Conn.”
The four-part series, created by Emmy-winning filmmakers James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte (“McMillions”), is excellently constructed, perfectly weaving together interviews and dramatizations to tell the surreal story of the larger-than-life Conn, who worked with a Social Security judge and a doctor to get thousands of disability claims approved. The narrative is framed by the words of Conn himself, both through a written manuscript and an interview he conducted with Hernandez and Lazarte. We hear about Conn’s 16 wives, his brothel in Thailand and many more outlandish tales. The four hours are engrossing and entertaining, but for me, they were also thoroughly sickening.
The cover-up at all levels would horrify me no matter where it had all happened. But since so much of the case takes place in Huntington, the home base of the judge Conn was working with, it hit me much harder. It’s always tough for me to see scenes of a place I’m very familiar with while hearing about horrible wrongs that were committed, but this time was especially difficult. The story of Conn’s henchman following one of the women who exposed the scheme in a Huntington parking garage shook me to my very core. I pushed myself to make it through all four episodes, though it wasn’t always easy.
It’s a common fear when filmmakers come to Appalachia that they’ll portray us in a negative light, but that is not the case here. In fact, what the documentary does better than anything is shine the spotlight on the people who truly deserve it. The two brave whistleblowers who worked in the Huntington Social Security office, Sarah Carver and Jennifer Griffith, get the full hero treatment they truly deserve and have never received.
And the Conn clients who had their benefits taken away and are still fighting to get them back, are accurately portrayed as victims of not only Conn, but their government as well. I cried hearing their stories and join their attorney in hoping that this documentary can help their cause.
“Conn” is everything that a good documentary should be: a well-written and excellently produced sharing of a riveting true story. But when that story hits a little too close to home, the truth — no matter how well presented — can really hurt.
“The Big Conn” premieres Friday, May 6, on Apple TV+.