Florida man pleads guilty to stealing more than $7.2 million in COVID-19 relief funds

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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 unlawful monetary transactions, court documents said. His hearing is set 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 he received 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 Payday Protection Program loan in May 2020. Cisternino’s PPP loan application falsely claimed that his company MagnifiCo employed 441 employees, and monthly payroll costs in 2019 exceed $2.8 million. In fact, the company had no employees except Chisternin. Along with his loan application, Cisternino submitted false W-2s, many of which listed the names and Social Security numbers of real people, preventing him from using 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 in January 2021 that he was being investigated for fraud, 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 Wage Protection Program includes 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’s part of the coronavirus relief package that became federal law in 2020.

Copyright © 2022, The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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