COVID-19 Can't Spring Convicted Legal Fraudster From Jail

By Bill Wichert
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Law360 (April 6, 2020, 5:43 PM EDT) -- A New Jersey federal judge has knocked down a convicted fraudster's bid to be released from a county jail over fears of COVID-19 as he awaits sentencing on charges he and his then-wife defrauded Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, Hunton & Williams LLP and MasterCard Inc. in a $7.8 million scheme.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael A. Hammer on Friday issued an order denying Melvin Feliz's application, two days after his attorney cited Feliz's age and pulmonary issues in suggesting he faces a heightened risk of catching the novel coronavirus while behind bars at Essex County Correctional Facility.

Feliz, whose sentencing is set for May 27, has admitted to conspiring with Keila Ravelo while she was a partner at the law firms and representing MasterCard. The scheme involved bilking the firms and the company out of millions paid to sham litigation support companies over several years.

It was not immediately clear whether Feliz and Ravelo are still married.

After pleading guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and tax evasion, Ravelo was sentenced in October 2018 to five years in prison. She is scheduled to be released in April 2022, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.

Feliz pled guilty in August 2015 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of tax evasion in connection with the scheme. Feliz previously pled guilty to conspiring to distribute cocaine. He was charged with two other men in that case.

Under a plea agreement, Feliz has been expected to receive a four-year prison term for the fraudulent billing scheme, which would be served consecutively with a sentence of 10 years in prison for the narcotics offense, court documents state.

In a Wednesday letter seeking Feliz's "compassionate release" from the Essex County jail over the COVID-19 pandemic, his attorney, Jason F. Orlando of Murphy Orlando LLC, said Feliz has been in custody there since December 2014.

Orlando also noted that Feliz is "a non-violent offender with no history of violence," and cited his age and pulmonary issues.

"As a 54-year-old male, Mr. Feliz is at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 than most of the other inmates and corrections officers at ECCF. In addition, Mr. Feliz has indicated that in recent years he has experienced pulmonary issues related to a persistent cough," Orlando wrote to U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty.

The letter added that, before he was incarcerated and while he was on electronic monitoring, Feliz in 2014 "consulted with a pulmonologist concerning a persistent cough."

The following day, prosecutors urged Judge Hammer to deny the request, arguing in a letter that Feliz offered "no legal or factually supported evidence either warranting bail or demonstrating that he is a 'high-risk' individual."

Feliz is not elderly and "provides absolutely no support" for the claim about experiencing alleged pulmonary issues related to his cough, prosecutors said.

"Similarly, he provides no medical records concerning his consultation with a doctor concerning a cough in 2014," prosecutors said. "Thus, he does not present any evidence of health conditions that make him particularly susceptible to COVID-19 complications."

In denying similar requests to be released from the county jail over coronavirus fears, Judge Hammer on March 30 noted that a defendant had failed to submit medical records regarding his exercise-induced asthma.

"There's little basis to believe that this is an ongoing medical issue, much less a serious one warranting relief under [federal statute 18 U.S.C. Section 3142(i)]," Judge Hammer said in that decision.

Counsel for Feliz did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The government is represented by Andrew Kogan of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey.

Feliz is represented by Jason F. Orlando of Murphy Orlando LLC.

The case is U.S. v. Feliz, case number 2:15-cr-00421, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

--Editing by Jack Karp.

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