Seminole County Man Extradited From Croatia Pleads Guilty To $7.2 Million COVID Relief Fraud
For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Middle District of Florida
Orlando, Florida – United States Attorney Roger B. Handberg announces that Don V. Cisternino (46, Chuluota) has pleaded guilty to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and illegal monetary transaction. Cisternino faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison for the wire fraud, up to 10 years’ imprisonment for the illegal monetary transaction, and a mandatory consecutive sentence of 2 years in federal prison for the aggravated identity theft. A sentencing date has not yet been set.
According to the plea agreement, in May 2020, Cisternino fraudulently secured more than $7.2 million in emergency funds through a Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) loan.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act is a federal law enacted March 2020. It was designed to provide emergency financial assistance to millions of Americans who are suffering the economic effects resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. One source of relief provided by the CARES Act was the authorization of up to $349 billion in potentially forgivable loans to small businesses for job retention and certain other expenses through the PPP. In April 2020, Congress authorized over $300 billion in additional PPP funding. The PPP allowed qualifying small businesses and other organizations to receive loans with a maturity of two years and an interest rate of one percent. Businesses were required to use PPP loan proceeds for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities.
Cisternino’s PPP loan application falsely claimed that Cisternino’s business, MagnifiCo, had 441 employees and monthly payroll expenses in 2019 of more than $2.8 million. In truth, MagnifiCo, had no employees other than Cisternino. In support of his PPP loan application, Cisternino submitted false W-2s for MagnifiCo’s purported employees, many of which listed the names and Social Security numbers of actual persons who were not MagnifiCo employees and who had not authorized Cisternino to use their identities.
Once he obtained the emergency loan of $7.2 million, Cisternino did not use these funds for qualifying expenses. Instead, he spent the funds for unauthorized purposes and for his own personal enrichment, including the purchase of a Lincoln Navigator, a Maserati, Mercedes-Benz vehicles, and a 12,579 sq. ft. residence in Seminole County, Florida (pictured below).
On January 22, 2021, after learning that he was under investigation for PPP loan fraud, Cisternino fled to Switzerland. He was arrested on April 11, 2021, pursuant to an Interpol Red Notice, as he attempted to enter Croatia from Slovenia by way of Italy.
As part of his plea agreement, Cisternino agreed to forfeit the $7.2 million in proceeds that he had obtained through the wire fraud, as well as assets traceable to the fraud, including the 12,579 sq. ft. residence and approximately $1.1 million in funds held in bank accounts controlled by him or his associates.
This case was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, Tampa Field Office. The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs provided valuable assistance in securing Cisternino’s arrest and extradition. It is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Chauncey A. Bratt, with assistance from Assistant United States Attorneys Nicole Andrejko and Jeremy Bloor.
Updated April 19, 2023