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Tampa, Florida – United States Attorney A. Lee Bentley, III announces that a federal jury today found Perry Don Cortese (53, Little River, Texas), Priscilla Ann Ellis (51, Killeen, Texas), and Kenietta Rayshawn Johnson (35, Leavenworth, Kansas) guilty of conspiracy to commit international money laundering and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Each faces a maximum penalty of 40 years in federal prison. Their sentencing hearings will be scheduled at a later date.
Cortese, Ellis, and Johnson were named in a superseding indictment on September 24, 2015.
According to the evidence presented at trial, Cortese, Ellis, and Johnson were members of an international criminal organization that defrauded dozens of victims across the United States and then laundered the funds, much of which were sent overseas. The fraud schemes took several forms. Many victims were law firms solicited online to perform legal work, provided counterfeit cashier’s checks for deposit into the firms’ trust accounts, and then directed to wire money to third-party shell businesses controlled by the conspirators. Others were title companies defrauded in phony real estate transactions. Other victims were targeted and defrauded by fake suitors on dating websites. The conspiracy also employed hackers who compromised both individual and corporate e-mail accounts, ordering wire transfers from brokerage and business accounts to shell accounts controlled by conspirators.
Victims were instructed to wire money into funnel accounts held by conspirators, known as “money mules.” The funds were then quickly moved to other accounts in the United States and around the world before the victims could discover the fraud. Bank records presented at trial indicate that, from 2012 to 2015, several millions dollars’ worth of wires were received in such accounts to be laundered. Conspirators in Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Senegal, and elsewhere helped coordinate the fraud and money laundering activity from abroad.
Cortese, a licensed attorney in Texas, worked for the conspirators by laundering victim money through his interest on lawyers trust accounts (“IOLTAs”). He also met with individuals in person to retrieve cash withdrawn from receiver accounts. Cortese recruited his paralegal and others to open such accounts to launder funds. The evidence further showed that Johnson, then a bank employee at Capital One, helped create counterfeit checks and monitor money flows between accounts controlled by conspirators.
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from various federal and local law enforcement partners throughout the country, including the United States Postal Inspection Service and the Toronto Police Service in Ontario, Canada. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Patrick Scruggs and Eric Gerard.