Florida man pleads guilty to $7.2M COVID-19 relief fraud

ORLANDO, Fla. — A Florida man who fled the U.S. 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 wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and illegal monetary transaction, according to court documents. His hearing is scheduled for Jan. 5 where 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 connected to the crimes.

According to the plea agreement, Cisternino fraudulently secured 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 business, 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 false 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 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 that year pursuant to an Interpol Red Notice while trying to enter Croatia from Slovenia by way of Italy. He was later extradited to the United States.

The Paycheck Protection Program involves 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 that became federal law in 2020.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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