A former employee of a nonprofit company affiliated with the University of South Florida has pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzlement of at least $ 12.8 million, with most of that money going to a adult website, the school announced Thursday night.
The employee, Ralph Puglisi, signed a plea agreement in June and it was filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa this week, the university said. State corporation records list Puglisi with an address in Palm Harbor.
Puglisi, 59, was the accounting director for the University Medical Service Association, known as UMSA, a nonprofit that provides staff and other support to the sprawling healthcare enterprise of the ‘university. The company employs people at USF Health, Tampa General Hospital, the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in downtown Tampa, and the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
UMSA leaders were made aware of suspicious activity in November and Puglisi was fired within days, according to an investigative report commissioned by Greenberg Traurig, a law firm representing the university. The company’s finance director, who oversaw Puglisi, and its internal auditor were also fired, according to the report.
He revealed that Puglisi generated at least $ 12.86 million in non-commercial charges on UMSA credit cards, of which at least $ 11.5 million went to an adult content website, mygirlfund.com.
About 22,000 interactions with the site have been recorded, and research found Puglisi was dating the profile of a woman on the site who is believed to be his stepson’s fiancée, according to the report. He said an Excel document was found which showed the two shared $ 743,968 in profits, with 60% of the money going to Puglisi.
The nature of the transactions and other details were not clear, but the report said: “The investigation team developed a working theory that Puglisi worked with either the directors of the adult content provider or with female profiles of the adult content provider in order to financially benefit from the funds debited from the UMSA credit card.
The website allows users to purchase credits and then donate them to people with profiles on the site, who can “cash out” those credits for real money at any time. Puglisi visited the profile user who is believed to be his stepson’s fiancee more than 2,800 times over a two-year period, according to the report.
He also said Puglisi was dating another Toronto-based woman’s profile and paid more than $ 22,486 in plane tickets for her and her friends to get to Orlando. An additional $ 43,662 was spent at Disney World resorts, according to the report.
In addition, Puglisi is accused of paying $ 647,882 to a limited liability company he owned with his wife, along with other expenses including: $ 374,598 for personal travel; $ 190,991 rent for a family member; $ 120,575 in home renovations; $ 21,610 in cell phone bills; $ 15,765 for a personal real estate lawyer in the Virgin Islands; $ 1,799 for the wedding expenses of a family member; and $ 100 to his wife’s PayPal account.
Further investigation revealed Vanilla Visa gift cards, purchased as an incentive for employees, which were used for transactions on mygirlfund.com. Through the scheme, Puglisi also sent a check for over $ 18,900 through the U.S. Postal Service, which resulted in mail fraud charges, according to records.
The report concluded that UMSA’s internal controls to prevent fraud were weak. The university’s internal audit team identified numerous transactions for which Puglisi had processed entries in a way that obscured his actions, according to the report.
In a statement, USF said the UMSA had since “put in place improved control structures, including upgraded financial information systems, to better protect against criminal acts.”
The stolen money came from funds generated by patient care and no money from state, philanthropy, grants or research was allocated, the statement said.
He said the university “is the victim of a serious crime committed by a person in a position of trust.”
According to an Internal Revenue Service report that UMSA is required to file as a nonprofit, the company recorded revenues of nearly $ 306 million in the fiscal year ending 30 June 2020. The major part of this sum consisted of disbursements made “on behalf of the College. of the 19 clinical departments of medicine for the support of about 466 professors and 310 support staff, ”the file says.
Under the deal he signed in federal court, Puglisi pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the UMSA and agreed to return the money. The agreement provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of $ 250,000 or double the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. He is also asking for no more than three years of supervised release and $ 100 per felony count.
“Sir. Puglisi has been cooperative throughout the investigation and has taken steps to pay restitution to the University of South Florida,” his attorney Anthony Rickman said in a statement Thursday.
The university was also pursuing civil action in the case, including an injunction to prevent Puglisi from selling any property purchased with the embezzled funds.
The school said it informed its board of trustees of the matter, in addition to the state board of governors, Florida House and Senate leaders, the governor’s office and the state auditor general. .
The USF Police Department was involved in finding and securing Puglisi’s office.