Florida man pleads guilty to $7.2M COVID-19 relief fraud
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.
According to court documents, Don V., 46, of Chuluota. Cisterino pleaded guilty Tuesday in Orlando federal court to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and illegal financial transactions. His hearing is scheduled for Jan. 5 where he could face up to 32 years in federal prison. As part of a deal with prosecutors, Cisternino has already agreed to forfeit the money from the fraud, as well as any assets linked to the crime.
Cisternino fraudulently secured more than $7.2 million in emergency funds through a Paycheck Protection Program loan in May 2020, according to the plea agreement. Cisternino’s PPP loan application falsely claimed that his business, Magnifico, had 441 employees and monthly payroll expenses in 2019. $2.8 million. The company actually had no employees other than Cisternino. Along with his loan application, Cisternino submitted false W-2s, many of which listed the names and Social Security numbers of real people who did not give him permission to use their identities. After receiving the money, Cisterino 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.
Cisterino fled to Switzerland in January 2021 after learning he was being investigated for fraud, officials said. In April of that year, he was arrested while trying to enter Croatia from Slovenia via Italy on an Interpol Red Notice. He was later extradited to the United States.
The Paycheck Protection Program involves billions of dollars in forgivable small-business loans for Americans struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The money must be used to pay employees, mortgage interest, rent and utilities. It is part of the coronavirus relief package that became federal law in 2020.
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