Florida Man Pleads Guilty to $7.2 Million COVID-19 Relief Fraud

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Posted: Sep 22, 2022 1:45 PM
Florida Man Pleads Guilty to $7.2 Million COVID-19 Relief Fraud

Source: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File

A Florida man who fled the United States and was arrested overseas has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $7.2 million in COVID-19 relief funds. 

Don V. Cisternino of Chuluota, Florida pleaded guilty this week to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and illegal monetary transaction, ABC News reported. He has a hearing scheduled at a federal court in Orlando and could face up to 32 years in prison.

Reportedly, Cisternino secured the funds through a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan in May 2020. His loan falsely claimed that his business had over 400 employees and monthly payroll expenses amounting more than $2.8 million. With his loan application, Cisternino submitted false W-2 documents, which included the names and Social Security numbers of real people.

The company had no employees other than Cisternino. He reportedly used the funds to buy a Lincoln Navigator, a Maserati, a Mercedes-Benz and an over 12,500 square-foot home in Seminole County.

In January 2021, Cisternino reportedly fled to Switzerland once he learned he was being investigated for fraud. He was arrested trying to enter Croatia and was extradited to the United States.

This week, Leah covered how the Department of Justice announced a $250 million fraud scheme that exploited a federal program meant to feed needy children during the pandemic. Forty-seven defendants in Minnesota were charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery in what the government described as “the largest COVID-19 fraud scheme in the nation.”

“Aimee Bock was the founder and executive director of Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit organization that was a sponsor participating in the Federal Child Nutrition Program. The indictments charge Bock with overseeing a massive fraud scheme carried out by sites under Feeding Our Future’s sponsorship. Feeding Our Future went from receiving and disbursing approximately $3.4 million in federal funds in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021,” a press release from the DOJ explained. 

“As part of the charged scheme, Feeding Our Future employees recruited individuals and entities to open Federal Child Nutrition Program sites throughout the state of Minnesota. These sites, created and operated by the defendants and others, fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day within just days or weeks of being formed. The defendants created dozens of shell companies to enroll in the program as Federal Child Nutrition Program sites. The defendants also created shell companies to receive and launder the proceeds of their fraudulent scheme,” it added. 

The defendants created and submitted fraudulent meal count sheets documenting the number of children they’d served at each site. They reportedly submitted false invoices detailing the food purchases to serve at each site, in addition to fake attendance rosters listing the children’s names.

Leah noted that the funds were actually used to purchase cars, fund international travel, and purchase real estate in the U.S. and abroad. Most of the defendants have either been arrested or turned themselves in. However, some reportedly left the U.S.

“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota said in a statement from the DOJ. 

“These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their own greed, stealing more than a quarter of a billion dollars in federal funds to purchase luxury cars, houses, jewelry, and coastal resort property abroad. I commend the work of the skilled investigators and prosecutors who unraveled the lies, deception, and mountains of false documentation to bring this complex case to light.”

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