Two Bell County residents were among those found guilty Friday by a federal jury of international money laundering and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
Perry Don Cortese, 53, a Bell County lawyer who worked in Little River-Academy, Priscilla Ann Ellis, 51, of Killeen, and Kenietta Rayshawn Johnson, 35, of Kansas, were all found guilty Friday by a federal jury in Florida.
Johnson is Ellis’ daughter, according to the federal grand jury indictment.
Cortese and his accomplices could each face up to 40 years in federal prison. Their sentencing hearings will be held at a later date, a Department of Justice news release said Friday.
The trial lasted more than two weeks.
Evidence presented during the trial showed that Cortese, Ellis and Johnson were members of an international criminal organization that defrauded dozens of victims in the United States and laundered the proceeds. Much of that money went overseas.
Many of the victims were law firms approached online to do legal work. The firms were given counterfeit cashier’s checks to deposit in the firms’ trust accounts and then were directed to wire money to third-party shell businesses the conspirators controlled.
Title companies were also defrauded in phony real estate transactions. People on dating websites were targeted and defrauded, the release said.
Hackers were hired to comprise individual and corporate e-mail accounts. They ordered transfers from brokerage and business accounts to shell accounts controlled by Cortese, Ellis and Johnson, among others.
Victims were told to wire money into funnel accounts, also called “money mules,” and the funds were moved to other accounts in the U.S. and around the world before the victims discovered the fraud. From 2012 to 2015, several million dollars’ worth of wires was received to be laundered.
Other individuals in Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Senegal and elsewhere helped coordinate the fraud activity in their areas of the country.
Cortese laundered victim money through his own accounts and met with people in person to get cash withdrawn from receiver accounts. He used his paralegal and others to open the accounts to launder funds.
More evidence showed that Johnson, then a relationship banker at Capital One Bank living in Virginia, helped create counterfeit checks and monitor money flow between the conspirator-controlled accounts.
The case was investigated by the FBI with assistance from federal partners throughout the country, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Toronto Police Service in Ontario.
City of Temple targeted by Cortese, Ellis
On Nov. 7, 2013, the Temple City Council authorized a Strategic Investment Zone matching grant with Vicken International Traders LLC, a shell corporation used by Ellis and Cortese. Luckily, no money exchanged hands between the city and the shell company because no improvements were ever made and the grant expired, the Temple Daily Telegram reported in September 2015.
The matching grant was for redevelopment improvements to property located at 14 and 16 South Main Street as part of the South First Street Strategic Investment Zone corridor and was for up to $40,000, according to a previous Telegram article. Vicken reportedly was going to use the building for a restaurant, offices and additional retail businesses. Based on the initial investment estimates, eligible expenses would have resulted in a $38,000 match plus a waiver of permits and fees up to $2,000. The total project cost for Vicken was $350,000 for renovations, sidewalks and sign improvements, but improvements had to be started by Dec. 1, 2013, and finished within a year. No improvements were ever done to the building.
The grant was recommended to the Council by Kim Foutz, an assistant city manager at that time who later became the Salado village administrator.
The property was listed in the indictment as one of the properties to be forfeited if Cortese and Ellis were convicted.
Additional property to be forfeited includes, but isn’t limited to, a money judgment of at least $8.8 million, real property located at 110 W. Veterans Memorial Blvd. in Harker Heights, real property located at 1305 Springforest Circle in Killeen and real property located at 1703 S. Roy Reynolds Drive in Killeen, according to the indictment.