Mario Cortolezzis sentenced in autism scheme

Mario Cortolezzis, the man who stole nearly $60,000 from his own autism charity and was the subject of our November 24 cover story, was sentenced to 60 days in jail today.

He avoided a much longer sentence by making good on his promise to pay tens of thousands in restitution.

"Now we can start paying people back," says the group's accountant, Larry Atneosen.

Cortolezzis founded SAFER with two members of the Carver County Sheriff's department in 2008. The charity provided tracking bracelets to children with autism who have a tendency to wander. Cortolezzis's son Dante was the inspiration and SAFER's first member child.

But after board members noticed some suspicious banking activity, it was revealed that Cortolezzis ​had been using donated money for personal expenses almost since the nonprofit's inception. Cortolezzis paid his mortgage, went shopping and tanning, and even took $10,000 cash on the account's line of credit. The initial audit showed $60,204 was missing.

On December 28, Cortolezzis pleaded guilty to four counts of felony theft. He was also ordered to pay SAFER back in full or face a stiffer sentence.

Today, Cortolezzis appeared in court and confirmed that he had turned over the remaining $42,977. He will serve 60 days in jail starting March 11 and spend five years on probation. He is not to hold any position at a nonprofit or one that deals with finances.

The restitution payment also means that SAFER will finally be able to pay back the vendors who were strung along for tens of thousands while Cortolezzis was running the organization.

But while getting out of debt once held the promise that SAFER would be able to resume operations, Atneosen says he'd be surprised if the group lasts long after they've dispersed the money. Even one of its founders, Carver County Sheriff Sgt. Derek Lee, isn't so sure.

"We've taken a large hit in the community, there's a lot of trust to be rebuilt," he says.

As to whether he will continue on with SAFER, Lee says, "I personally don't know at this point."

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