ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man who fled the United States and was eventually arrested in Croatia has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $7.2 million in COVID-19 relief funds.
Don V. Cisternino, 46, of Chuluota, pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Orlando to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and illegal monetary transaction, according to court documents. His hearing is scheduled for January 5 where he could face 32 years in federal prison. As part of a deal with prosecutors, Cisternino has already agreed to confiscate the fraud money, along with any assets related to the crimes.
According to the plea agreement, Cisternino fraudulently obtained more than $7.2 million in emergency funds through a Paycheck Protection Program loan in May 2020. Cisternino’s PPP loan application falsely claimed that his company, MagnifiCo, had 441 employees and monthly payroll expenses in 2019 of more than $2.8 million. The company actually had no employees other than Cisternino. Along with his loan application, Cisternino submitted fake W-2s, many of which listed the names and social security numbers of real people who hadn’t given him permission to use their identities. After receiving the money, Cisternino spent it on a Lincoln Navigator, a Maserati, a Mercedes-Benz, and a 12,579 square foot (1,168 square meter) home in Seminole County, Florida.
Cisternino fled to Switzerland after learning he was being investigated for fraud in January 2021, officials said. He was arrested in April of the same year under an Interpol red notice while trying to enter Croatia from Slovenia via Italy. He was later extradited to the United States.
The Paycheck Protection Program involves billions of dollars in repayable small business loans for Americans struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The money should be used to pay employees, mortgage interest, rent and utilities. It’s part of the coronavirus relief program that became federal law in 2020.
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