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

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 Orlando federal court to counts of fraud, aggravated identity theft and illegal money transfers, 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 an agreement with prosecutors, Cisternino has already agreed to forfeit the money from the scam and all assets linked to the crimes.

Per the plea agreement, in May 2020, Cisternino fraudulently secured more than $7.2 million in emergency funds through a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Cisternino’s PPP loan application falsely claimed that his company, MagnifiCo, had 441 employees and monthly payroll costs of more than $2.8 million in 2019. The company actually had no employees other than Cisternino. Along with his loan application, Cisternino submitted bogus W-2s, 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 1,168-square-foot home in Seminole County, Florida.

Cisternino fled to Switzerland after learning in January 2021 that he was under investigation for fraud, officials said. He was arrested in April of the same year, according to a red notice from Interpol, while attempting to enter Croatia from Slovenia via Italy. He was later extradited to the United States.

The Paycheck Protection Program includes billions of dollars in forgivable small business loans for Americans struggling because of 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, which became federal law in 2020.

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

https://abc7.com/don-v-cisternino-covid-fraud-72-million-stolen-covid-19-relief-funds-ppp-loan/12250443/ Florida man pleaded guilty to stealing more than $7.2 million in COVID-19 relief funds

Laura Coffey

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