Apple TV released a four-episode mini-series this month called “The Big Conn.”
It is a documentary following Eric Conn, an attorney who defrauded the government and taxpayers in a social security fraud scheme.
Mr. Conn has a larger-than-life — and often obnoxious — personality and was a dominant presence in the eastern Kentucky region where he lived and worked.
The series also regularly interacts with some local residents, whistleblowers, and law enforcement officers. The series takes about four hours to watch and is entertaining. Beyond that, however, the show has two key lessons.
First, it’s impossible to watch this and not think the Social Security Administration (SSA) is stunningly inept and corrupt.
Those who know me know I’m libertarian in my beliefs and think many government agencies — despite having many wonderful people working for them — will often be dysfunctional. That was my bias going in, so it would take a lot for me to be surprised and shocked. I was.
Even writing this, I’m stunned at how corrupt and inept the Social Security Administration was.
The SSA, during the Eric Conn fraud and case, did the following:
n Completely ignored whistleblower complaints about this (obvious) fraud for a long time
n Had SSA employees — while on-the-clock, which means they are being paid by your tax dollars — engage in spying and retaliation against the whistleblower
n Stonewalled government agents when a journalist exposed the case.
When the SSA finally acted, their choice of action was shocking (I won’t say more not to spoil the show).
There is more but again, I don’t want to spoil the show completely.
Anyone who follows the news knows there are upcoming issues with Social Security’s solvency. It will take courageous leadership by our politicians and good, ethical, and able work by those in the SSA. After watching this, I think we should all be afraid.
A second important lesson: it’s crucial to say no when an unethical or illegal favor is asked in the workforce.
When watching, it’s pretty apparent that Eric Conn is an obnoxious, egotistical, bombastic man. But it also seemed like he wanted to help his clients. His downfall started when he said yes to an unethical favor, and things spiraled from there.
We all like to think we will always make the right/ethical choice in challenging situations. But each year, thousands make unethical decisions in their jobs.
Some aren’t caught, of course. But every year, many are fired for unethical choices, and some go to jail for unethical decisions that are also illegal. Often, after someone is fired or imprisoned for unethical or illegal workforce behavior, coworkers will state that “they could never have expected” it out of that person.
Often these crimes don’t start with someone looking to get rich themselves but looking to help others.
At Susquehanna University, we’ve had several white-collar criminals talk to students in a business law class over the years.
Often at a key decision point, these convicted criminals will say their rationale was “I know this isn’t what I’m supposed to do, but it’s really helping my boss or my firm.”
Be alert if something like this happens in your job and do everything you can avoid falling into the trap of doing something illegal or unethical.
Quitting and finding a new job is a better alternative than having your career ruined and facing jail time.
The Big Conn is a four-part mini-series on Apple TV.
While I think the series could perhaps have been three hours instead of four, I recommend it.
The Big Conn is worth watching both for the entertainment and educational value.
Matthew Rousu is dean and a professor of economics in the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University and author of the book Broadway and Economics: Economic Lessons from Show Tunes.