Extradited Seminole Man Faces Federal Prison for Perpetrating Pandemic Relief Fraud

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Don V. Cisternino, 47, will be spending the next years of his life in jail for defrauding the Paycheck Protection program and stealing the identities of other people. He was convicted guilty on charges of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and illegal monetary transaction. On January 12, 2023, it was announced that Wendy W. Berger, a U.S. District Judge, sentenced him to 8 years and six months in prison to pay for his crimes. Authorities seized his ill-gotten gains amounting to $1,071,923.98 from five bank accounts.

The ill-gotten funds left a trace of his dirty scheme and the court ordered him to surrender the seized funds. With that, an order of forfeiture in the amount of $7.21 million was also summoned, which is equal to the total proceeds Cisternino gained from the wire fraud scheme. Court documents filed in 2020, disclosed that Cisternino fraudulently procured more than $7.2 million in emergency funds through a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. The PPP is one of the benefits covered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act which offers financial assistance to the recipients in need to recover from the economic turmoil brought on by the pandemic.

The program arranges around $349 billion in potentially forgivable loans to small businesses to sustain economic opportunities and employment through the PPP. Substantially, the PPP authorizes eligible small businesses and other organizations to acquire loans with a maturity of two years and an interest rate of one percent. In addition, businesses were mandated to use the proceeds from the PPP loan for matters concerning payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities.

In Cisternino’s case, his PPP loan application fabricated claims about his business, MagnifiCo, having 441 employees and monthly payroll expenses that cost more than $2.8 million. In fact, Cisternino had no employees except for himself. To maintain the façade of his lies, Cisternino submitted fake W-2s for non-existent MagnifiCo employees by demonstrating identity theft. He listed the names and social security numbers of multiple individuals who were not associated with MagnifiCo and did not authorize Saturnino to use their identities.

The DOJ discovered that Saturnino used the emergency loan for his personal gains since it was reported that he purchased a Maserati, a Mercedes-Benz, and a 12-acre estate with a 12,579 square feet residence in Seminole County. None of the purchases made from the emergency loan were accepted as qualifying expenses. During the investigation, Cisternino attempted to run away from the authorities by fleeing to Switzerland but he was arrested on April 11, 2021. Cisternino pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and illegal monetary transactions on September 20, 2022, and he was extradited from Croatia.

According to Michael Galdo, the Department of Justice Acting Director of COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement, the case illustrates the “Department of Justice’s ongoing commitment to prosecute those who defrauded our pandemic relief programs and bring them to justice no matter where in the world they try to hide.”

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