Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Middle District of Florida
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Eleventh Circuit Court Of Appeals Upholds Convictions And Lengthy Sentences Of Texas Lawyer And Another For International Money Laundering Conspiracy And Mail And Wire Fraud Conspiracy
June 9, 2020 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: FEB 11, 2021
“Participation in a criminal conspiracy need not be proved by direct evidence; a common purpose and plan may be inferred from a development and collocation of circumstances.”
Perez-Tosta, 36 F.3d at 1557 – cited at p. 11 of Opinion
Tampa, Florida – United States Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez announces that the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has upheld the convictions of Priscilla Ann Ellis (Killeen, Texas) and now disbarred Texas Lawyer Perry Don Cortese (Little River, Texas) on charges that they had participated in an extensive mail and wire fraud conspiracy and an international money laundering conspiracy.
The court also affirmed Ellis’s statutory maximum 40-year sentence and Cortese’s 25-year sentence. (Last year, the court upheld Ellis’s 65-year sentence in a separate, related case, in which she was convicted of murder-for-hire, witness retaliation, and securities counterfeiting.)
Ellis and Cortese were charged in a superseding indictment in 2015. According to the evidence presented at their trial, both were members of an international criminal organization that defrauded dozens of victims across the United States and then laundered the proceeds/profits, sending much of the money overseas. The fraud schemes took several forms.
Many victims were law firms that were solicited online to perform legal work, were sent counterfeit cashier’s checks for deposit into the firms’ trust accounts, and were then directed to wire transfer money to third-party shell businesses controlled by the conspirators.
Other victims were title companies defrauded in phony real-estate transactions. Still other victims were targeted and defrauded by fake suitors on dating websites. The conspirators also employed hackers who compromised both individual and corporate e-mail accounts, ordering wire transfers from brokerage and business accounts to shell accounts that the conspirators controlled.
Victims were instructed to wire transfer money into bank accounts held by conspirators, known as “money mules.” The funds were then quickly moved to other accounts in the United States and around the world, before the victims could discover the fraud.
Bank records presented at trial showed that, from 2012 to 2015, several million dollars’ worth of wires were received in accounts to be laundered. Conspirators in Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Senegal, and elsewhere helped coordinate the fraud and money-laundering activity from abroad.
Both Ellis and Cortese challenged their convictions and sentences on appeal. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that “the evidence presented at trial showed that Ellis was deeply involved in the operation of the scheme.” A coconspirator had “sent her information about counterfeit checks to be created,” she had worked with other coconspirators “to create and print the counterfeit checks used by the conspiracy,” and she had brought others into the scheme. In addition, “[m]illions of dollars of fraudulent proceeds were routed through the bank account of a corporation she controlled.”
Cortese, who was a licensed attorney in Texas at the time, worked for the conspirators by laundering victims’ money through his law firm’s trust accounts.
The Eleventh Circuit determined that Cortese had “intervene[d] when necessary to ‘unfreeze’ accounts that had been locked by banks because of suspicious transactions” and had “worked closely with Ellis,” with “funds from many of the scams Ellis was involved in flow[ing] through his law firm trust account.”
The court of appeals also upheld the district court’s finding at sentencing that Ellis and Cortese were each accountable for an intended loss of $15 million. That finding, the court said, was “firmly supported by the evidence.”
And, the court affirmed the district court’s determination at sentencing that Cortese had used his special skills as a lawyer when committing the offenses.
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from federal and local law enforcement partners throughout the country, including the United States Postal Inspection Service and the Toronto Police Service in Ontario, Canada. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Patrick Scruggs. Assistant United States Attorneys Linda Julin McNamara and David P. Rhodes represented the United States on appeal.