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Financial Crime: Sick house: Florida man gets 8 ½ years for using Covid relief to buy lavish 12-acre estate, fleet of luxury cars

He’s going from one big house to another.

A failed lawyer and movie executive from Florida has been sentenced to 8 ½ years in prison for stealing $7.2 million in Covid-19 relief funds that he used to buy luxury cars and a 12,500-square-foot mansion on a 12-acre estate.

Don Cisternino, 47, of Chuluota, Fla., pleaded guilty in September in federal court in Orlando to wire fraud and identity theft charges for the scam in which he submitted applications for pandemic aid programs. Cisternino claimed he had a film and theater production and marketing business that had 441 employees, when in reality it had none. 

Using stolen social security numbers, prosecutors say Cisternino made phony claims that his company, MagnifiCo Inc., had a monthly payroll of over $2.8 million. The U.S. government approved him in 2020 for an emergency loan of $7.2 million, prosecutors said.

Cisternino then used the pandemic aid money to purchase the $3.5 million home. He lived in the seven-bedroom mansion complete with a full movie theater, five-stable horse barn, tennis court, swimming pool and an English-style pub, with his girlfriend.

Prior to receiving the loan, court records showed that Cisternino had been living in a modest apartment in Tampa, Fla., with his girlfriend, but had stopped paying rent and had been facing eviction. 

Prosecutors also say Cisternino used the loan to purchase a $251,000 Mercedes-Maybach S650X, a $90,000 Lincoln Navigator, and to pay off a $48,000 loan for a Maserati. He additionally gave $1.4 million to his parents and money to his sister, according to court documents.

Not long after Cisternino received the funds, federal investigators received a tip that it had been misspent and began investigating, prosecutors said. When he learned of the probe, prosecutors said Cisternino, who holds dual U.S.-Irish citizenship, fled to Switzerland.

Cisternino then traveled around Europe for three months before he was arrested attempting to cross from Slovenia into Croatia after his name had been placed on an Interpol watch list.

Cisternino initially resisted extradition to the U.S., but was eventually sent back to face trial, according to court filings. At one point, Cisternino had pursued a request for asylum in Ireland that was unsuccessful.

A message left with Cisternino’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned. In court documents, Cisternino’s lawyer said his client had studied law but had never passed the bar exam.

He argued for leniency, saying his client had made poor decisions due to his addiction to the hyperactivity disorder drug Adderall and his feelings of inadequacy due to the success of other members of his family. 

Cisternino’s attorney also argued that his client had made no effort to hide what he was doing with the money, purchasing the home and the cars in his own name. Including the profit made when the government seized and sold the home, Cisternino’s lawyer said authorities had recovered over $5.5 million of the purloined money. 

As part of his sentencing, Cisternino was ordered to pay restitution of $7.4 million.

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