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Bail Hearing Yields News That MCC To Reopen For Atty Visits

By Pete Brush · September 11, 2020, 4:20 PM EDT

New York - A federal judge declined Friday to free a businessman jailed on charges of lying to get $20 million in loans for companies hit by COVID-19, after a prosecutor said that the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where the man is being held, plans to reopen for attorney visits.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman, who is handling the federal case against Muge Ma, 36, noted that judges in the days after the Chinese national's May 21 arrest on charges of fraud and making false statements have already ordered him jailed as a flight risk.

Ma denies being a flight risk, saying he has not been to China since arriving in the U.S. in 2011 and has no plan to return. Judge Berman nevertheless said he is not inclined to disturb previous findings related to bail. But the judge did set a Sept. 30 follow-up hearing and invited Ma's lawyer, Peter Katz, to bring arguments related to whether Ma's constitutional right to counsel is being impeded while he is in custody at the MCC.

"So far, from what I've heard, I think it's appropriate to continue the remand," Judge Berman said as Ma listened over the phone from the 600-inmate detention center.

Ma, a lawful permanent U.S. resident and UCLA business school grad who also goes by Hummer Mars, elicited loans via the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program by falsely telling the Small Business Administration and lenders that his companies had hundreds of employees, according to the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office.

In reality, Ma appears to have been the only employee of his companies — New York International Capital LLC and Hurley Human Resources LLC — and had no legitimate basis to apply for the loans, say the feds, who also accuse him of falsely claiming to be a COVID-19 test kit manufacturer and a medical equipment supplier representing the state of New York.

Ma denied the charges at a Sept. 4 arraignment. In a Thursday letter and again at Friday's hearing, his lawyer told Judge Berman that Ma, who has never been in trouble with the law before, is unable to properly formulate a defense because they only have been able to communicate in a few "short bursts" over the phone.

"The reality is I don't have enough time to speak with him," said Katz, who added that "privileged communication" via emails to the MCC is impossible because prosecutors can read inmates' correspondence.

"I don't think any resource of our court has been spared on behalf of your client and that is as it should be," said Judge Berman, declining Ma's proposed $1 million bail package. "This is a difficult time and a difficult environment."

Prosecutor Sagar Ravi, meanwhile, said that the MCC hopes to begin alleviating attorney-access frustrations tied to the threat of the deadly virus in coming weeks.

"The government was informed last week that MCC will be resuming in-person legal visits on Sept. 21 — that's 10 days from today," Ravi said.

The exact details of the MCC's plan were not available, though comments in court suggested in-person access would resume on a limited basis to start. The MCC has been closed to all visitors in the months since the onset of COVID-19.

In a statement after the hearing, Washington, D.C.-based Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Emery Nelson said that "based on available resources at the local level, in-person attorney-client visitation will be accommodated upon request, and confidential legal calls will be allowed in order to ensure inmates maintain access to counsel."

In the Ma case, Ravi told Judge Berman that the government plans to produce discovery in coming days to Katz. Ravi said the sides also are engaging in "discussions regarding a potential pretrial disposition."

Katz declined comment after the hearing.

Ma is represented by the Peter Katz of the Law Offices of Peter Katz LLC.

The government is represented by Sagar Ravi of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

The case is U.S. v. Ma, case number 1:20-cr-00407, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

Update: This story has been updated with a statement from the Bureau of Prisons.

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