American charged with COVID relief fraud arrested in Croatia

ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatian police have arrested a Florida man wanted in the U.S. on fraud charges for allegedly receiving more than $7.2 million in coronavirus relief funds after concocting hundreds of nonexistent employees on loan applications.

Croatian media identified the man as Don Cisternino. Croatian police confirmed the arrest Wednesday. They said in a statement to The Associated Press that a U.S. citizen was detained on an international warrant on the border with Slovenia on Sunday and handed over to a court in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.

A federal grand jury in Orlando handed down an indictment in February against the 45-year-old of Chuluota. The central Florida man was charged with two counts of wire fraud, three counts of aggravated identity theft and three counts of illegal monetary transactions. If convicted, he faces more than 70 years in prison.

Last spring, Cisternino allegedly falsely claimed on a loan application that his New York business, MagnifiCo, had 441 employees and monthly payroll expenses in 2019 of more than $2.8 million, prosecutors said. The company actually had few, if any, employees other than Cisternino and his girlfriend, and it didn’t report any wages to the IRS in 2019, officials said.

After obtaining the $7.2-million emergency loan, Cisternino purchased a 12,579-square-foot (1,169 square-meter) home in Seminole County, as well as a Lincoln Navigator car, a Maserati and a Mercedes-Benz, prosecutors said.

The Paycheck Protection Program represents billions of dollars in forgivable small business loans for Americans struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s part of the coronavirus relief package that became federal law in March.

Croatian media quoted Cisternino as telling the Croatian court that he fled the U.S. for Europe after the November U.S. elections because he feared the new Biden administration would persecute him for a business deal that was allowed during Donald Trump’s administration.

Cisternino, who played an episode role in the popular American ER TV series, reportedly said he wanted to seek political asylum in Russia or some other European state.

Croatian Jutarnji List newspaper said that Cisternino’s legal extradition procedure to the U.S. may take months, if not years. He remains detained in a Zagreb prison.

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