Orlando, Florida. — A Florida man who fled the US 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 money transaction, according to court documents. His hearing is scheduled for January 5 where he could face up to 32 years in federal prison. As part of a deal with prosecutors, Cisternino has already agreed to seize the money from the fraud, as well as 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. In reality, the company had no more employees than Cisternino. Along with his loan application, Cisternino submitted false W-2 forms, many of which listed the names and Social Security numbers of real people who had not authorized him 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) house in Seminole County, Florida.
Cisternino fled to Switzerland after learning he was being investigated for fraud in January 2021, authorities said. He was arrested in April of that year pursuant to an Interpol Red Notice when he was 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 forgivable small business loans for Americans battling 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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