Extradited Seminole County man sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison for COVID relief fraud


Date: January 12, 2023

Contact: newsroom@ci.irs.gov

Orlando, FL — U.S. District Judge Wendy W. Berger has sentenced Don V. Cisternino (Chuluota) to eight years and six months in federal prison for wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and illegal monetary transaction. The court also ordered Cisternino to forfeit a total of $1,071,923.98 seized from five different bank accounts, which are funds traceable to proceeds of the offense. In addition, the court entered an order of forfeiture in the amount of $7.21 million, which represents the total proceeds obtained by Cisternino from the wire fraud scheme. The court also ordered Cisternino to pay restitution to the U.S. Small Business Administration in the amount of $7,445,855.89. Cisternino had pleaded guilty on September 20, 2022, after being extradited from Croatia.

According to court documents, 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 his 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 his own personal enrichment, including the purchase of Maserati and Mercedes-Benz vehicles, as well as the purchase of a 12-acre estate with a 12,579 sq. ft. residence in Seminole County, 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.

"I would like to congratulate the dedicated prosecutors and agents, as well as our international partners, who brought this defendant to justice," said Department of Justice Acting Director of COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Michael Galdo. "This case demonstrates 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."

"The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was enacted to help businesses keep their workforce paid at the height of the pandemic. Unfortunately, Mr. Cisternino chose instead to use the funds he obtained as his personal pandemic piggyback," said Ronald A. Loecker, IRS-CI Acting Special Agent in Charge. "This sentencing should serve as a warning to those who might have engaged in similar fraudulent activity that holding those accountable for these crimes remains a high priority for federal authorities."

This case was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, Tampa Field Office. The Justice Department's Office of International Affairs and Croatian authorities provided valuable assistance in securing Cisternino's arrest and extradition. It was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Chauncey A. Bratt, with assistance from Assistant United States Attorneys Nicole Andrejko and Jeremy Bloor.