Perry Don Cortese, a Bell County attorney practicing in Little River-Academy, and Priscilla Ann Ellis, a Harker Heights resident and businesswoman, were arrested Monday by the U.S. Marshals Service and placed in a federal facility in Waco.
Cortese and Ellis were indicted Aug. 20 in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, on charges of wire fraud and international money laundering, according to federal court documents obtained by the Temple Daily Telegram.
They were being held Tuesday in the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, awaiting extradition to Florida, detention center personnel confirmed.
The indictment states Cortese and Ellis conspired with each other and with Muhammad Naji and other people to commit wire fraud by using wire communications to defraud lawyers and law firms across the U.S., and obtained funds under false and fraudulent pretenses. The duo allegedly used shell companies with fake names and opened bank accounts in the names of those shell companies at federally insured financial institutions.
The FBI reported Naji, 34, of Tampa, pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit money laundering. He faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.
Cortese and Ellis reportedly contacted victims’ lawyers and law firms through email and phone calls to look for legal representation in transactions and legal disputes to gain access to legal trust accounts.
Cashier’s checks from financial institutions in low dollar amounts were allegedly used to forge new ones made payable to the victim’s lawyers and firms that the pair contacted for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The lawyers and firms were told the cases were settled and the forged cashier’s checks were sent to them, reportedly as the proceeds of the legal settlements and transactions, the documents said.
The lawyers and firms were told to deposit the cashier’s checks into their legal accounts, which sent funds across state lines into the shell companies and other entities created by Cortese, Ellis and their co-conspirators, the documents said. The proceeds were reportedly wired to various financial institutions, including some overseas.
International money laundering
In the charge of international money laundering, Cortese and Ellis are accused of conspiring with Naji and others to transmit and transfer money to places outside the U.S., knowing the funds were intentionally being disguised and concealed.
The indictment said the two conspired and participated in fraud schemes as part of a transnational criminal organization operating in the United States, Canada, Asia, Europe and other locations with the intent of laundering the fraudulently-obtained money produced by the schemes.
They reportedly hacked into email accounts of individuals and businesses, assumed the identities of the account holders and transferred funds to the conspirators’ accounts.
Targeting websites, ‘spoofing’
Also, the two are accused of targeting Internet dating and social networking sites to pretend to have romantic relationships with the users. They created scenarios where money would need to be transferred to keep and advance the alleged relationships being used, the documents said.
Also alleged was the “spoofing” of email accounts of legitimate businesses to insert themselves into business transactions and obtain funds through wire transfers. Bank accounts were reportedly opened at different financial institutions to receive, transmit and obtain money from those schemes.
The victims wired the illegal proceeds into the bank accounts and the proceeds were reportedly shared by the conspirators. Funds were allegedly sent to overseas financial institutions to conceal the sources of the money, according to the documents.
Property may be forfeited
If convicted, Cortese and Ellis would forfeit any property, including personal, where proceeds were obtained from, directly or indirectly, because of their crimes. The property listed to be forfeited includes a forfeiture money judgment in the amount of at least $8.8 million; property at 110 W. Veterans Memorial Blvd., in Harker Heights (PKV Worldwide Wireless, owned by Ellis); and an empty building at 14 and 16 S. Main St., in Temple.
Also listed to be forfeited as substitute assets are an empty lot at 1305 Springforest Circle in Killeen and a residence at 1703 S. Roy Reynolds Drive in Killeen, according to the documents.