March 24, 2023

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.

Don V. Cisternino, 46, of Chuluota, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Orlando federal court to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and illegal currency transaction, according to court documents. His hearing is scheduled for January 5, when he could face up to 32 years in federal prison. As part of the deal with prosecutors, Cisternino has agreed to forfeit money from the fraud, as well as any assets related to the crime.

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 had more than $2.8 million in monthly payroll expenses in 2019. Apart from Cisternino, the company has virtually no other employees. Along with his loan applications, Cisternino submitted fake W-2s, many of which listed the names and Social Security numbers of real people who were not authorized to use their identities. After receiving the money, Cisternino spent it on a Lincoln Navigator, a Maserati, a Mercedes-Benz and 12,579 square feet (1,168 square meters) in Seminole County, Florida on the house.

Cisternino fled to Switzerland after learning he was being investigated for fraud in January 2021, officials said. In April of the same year, he was arrested while trying to enter Croatia from Slovenia via Italy under 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. This is part of the coronavirus relief package that became federal law in 2020.


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