December 8, 2022

Orlando, Florida (AP) – A Florida man who fled the United States and was eventually arrested in Croatia pleaded guilty to stealing more than $7.2 million in COVID-19 relief funds.

Don admitted in. Cisternino, 46, of Cholota, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Orlando federal court to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and illegal financial transactions, according to court documents. His hearing is scheduled for January 5 when he may face 32 years in federal prison. As part of a deal with prosecutors, Cisternino has already agreed to forfeit funds from fraud, as well as any assets linked to the crimes.

Per the plea agreement, Cisternino fraudulently obtained more than $7.2 million in emergency funds through the Paycheck Protection Program loan in May 2020. Cisternino’s PPP loan application claimed his company, MagnifiCo, had 441 employees and monthly payroll expenses in 2019 More than 2.8 million dollars. The company actually had no employees other than Cisternino. Besides his loan application, Cisternino submitted fake W-2s, many of which listed the names and Social Security numbers of real people they did not authorize 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.

Officials said Cisternino fled to Switzerland after learning he was under investigation for fraud in January 2021. He was arrested in April of that year under an Interpol Red Notice while trying to enter Croatia from Slovenia via Italy. It was later delivered to the United States.

The Paycheck Protection Program includes billions of dollars in small business loans that can be waived 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.


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