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Press Release

Texas Attorney Sentenced To 25 Years In Prison For International Money Laundering Conspiracy

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Middle District of Florida

Tampa, Florida – U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday today sentenced attorney Perry Don Cortese (54, Little River, Texas) to 25 years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit international money laundering and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. As part of his sentence, the Court entered a money judgment in the amount of $9,288,241.36. Cortese was also ordered to pay restitution to the victims in the amount of $3,767,196.


A federal jury found Cortese guilty on October 21, 2016.


According to the evidence presented at trial, Cortese and his business partner, Priscilla Ann Ellis, as well as Ellis’s daughter, Kenietta Rayshawn Johnson, were members of an international criminal organization that defrauded dozens of victims across the United States and then laundered the funds. Much of the money was sent overseas. Many victims were law firms that had been 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 victims included title companies defrauded in phony real estate transactions or individuals targeted by fake suitors on dating websites. The conspiracy also employed hackers who compromised both individual and corporate email accounts, ordering wire transfers from brokerage and business accounts to shell accounts controlled by conspirators.


As part of the scheme, victims were instructed to wire money into funnel accounts held by conspirators, known as “money mules.” The funds were then then quickly moved to other accounts in the United States and around the world before the victims could discover the fraud. Bank records indicated that, from 2012 to 2015, several million dollars’ worth of wire transfers were received into the accounts to be laundered. Conspirators in Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Senegal, and elsewhere helped coordinate the fraud from abroad. 


Cortese, a licensed attorney in Texas, worked for the conspirators by laundering victims’ money through his interest on lawyers trust accounts (“IOLTAs”). He also met with individuals in person to retrieve cash withdrawn from receiver accounts and recruited his paralegal and others to open such accounts to launder funds. Ellis laundered several million dollars’ worth of fraud proceeds through several bank accounts under her control. She also arranged for the creation of high-quality forgeries of checks and other documents. Johnson, then a bank employee at Capital One, helped create the counterfeit checks and monitor money flows between the conspirators’ accounts.


For her role in the conspiracy, Ellis was sentenced to 40 years in prison. As part of her sentence, the Court entered a money judgment against her in the amount of $9,288,241.36 and the forfeiture of various assets. In addition, she was ordered to pay $3,767,196 in restitution to her victims.


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 U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Toronto Police Service in Ontario, Canada. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Patrick Scruggs and Eric Gerard.

Updated October 17, 2017

Financial Fraud