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Business Observer Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2022 2 months ago

Accountant who stole nearly $13M and used it on adult website sentenced

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An employee working for USF Health support organization pleaded guilty to massive $13 million embezzlement and is heading to federal prison.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

A former accounting manager working with a USF Health support organization was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison Monday, Sept. 26, for stealing nearly $13 million from the university’s medical system and spending most of it on an adult website.

Ralph Puglisi, who worked for the University Medical Services Association, must also repay $12.8 million, according to court records.

He plead guilty August 2021 to one count of mail fraud and was facing 20 years in prison.

According to a lengthy statement released by USF at the time of the plea, Puglisi was a manager in UMSA’s finance and accounting department when he embezzled $12.8 million between 2014 and 2020 by using credit cards and then hiding the charges in USMA’s financial records.

A follow-up investigation on behalf of USF found that $11.5 million went to an adult website where men talk to women via text and video. The site, MyGirlFund, features photos of scantily clad women and bills itself as a place to chat with “sexy girls you won’t find anywhere else.”

In a court filing seeking a lesser sentence, his attorney wrote that Puglisi was stuck in a loveless marriage and was manipulated by a Canadian model on the site who knew he had physical and mental health illnesses. She tricked him “into believing that if he supported her family by ‘tipping’ her outrageous amounts of money that they would eventually be together in the ‘real world.’”

He paid the woman approximately $6 million, the filing shows.

Puglisi also partnered with his stepson and his stepson’s fiancé to move money by having the fiancé model on the site.

“Despite the external appearance that his life was under control, internally, Puglisi was dealing with mental illness that resulted in a downward spiral,” the attorney wrote. “Puglisi’s mental illness, which was caused in part from his abuse as a child, was exasperated by a traumatic brain injury he suffered as a result of an automobile accident in the 1990s.”

 

USF’s findings

Despite internal and external audits, university officials, in the statement, said, “the thefts remained hidden until senior leadership at USF Health questioned growing accounts receivable balances and began investigating.” 

Puglisi was put on administrative leave Dec. 1, 2020 when the allegations arose and fired three days later. His direct supervisor and the internal auditor were subsequently fired as well.

Since losing his job UMSA, Puglisi, who’s cooperated with authorities, has worked at Dollar General and Walmart as he awaited sentencing, according to court filings.

UMSA is a direct support organization at the university that oversees the administrative and financial management of the university’s physicians practice, according to the statement. The university’s procurement office says direct support organizations have “the authority to make expenditures to, or for, the benefit of the University of South Florida per USF Regulation.”

The stolen money was revenue from patient care and did not include state, federal, grant or donated money, the university said. “USF is a victim of a serious crime by a person who held a position of trust,” according to the statement.

After the theft was discovered USF employed “third party reviewers” to conduct an investigation, the statement adds. 

One of those reviews was a confidential investigation by the law firm Greenberg Traurig, which was hired in December 2020. According to the investigation, Puglisi “may have misappropriated approximately $15 million,” not the $12.8 million federal authorities have charged him with and the amount the university has publicly stated.

The Greenberg Traurig report dated April 9 is labeled “privileged and confidential” but was included in a batch of documents USF released along with the statement.

According to the report, Puglisi charged approximately $11.5 million — $8.9 million on one Visa card and $2.5 million on another — on MyGirlFund.com.

The report said a forensic investigation of Puglisi’s office computer found an Excel spreadsheet “prepared by this family member which details the distribution of monies from the adult content provider to Puglisi and the family member.” The report stated that one entry on the spreadsheet shows that $743,968 was “cashed out” from MyGirlFund and split 60/40 between Puglisi and the family member.

Also on the computer were photos of an “adult content provider” going by the name YourGirl94 “which appears to be the family member,” the report stated.  

Puglisi’s attorney in the court filing seeking a lesser sentence confirms the allegations and says the family members were his stepson and his stepson’s fiancé.

The remaining $3 million, according to the report, went toward entertainment, family members, home improvements, an automobile and personal expenses.

That includes $648,000 to an LLC owned by Puglisi and his wife, which “purchased the primary residence of Puglisi and his wife and also a lot on the island of St. John in the United States Virgin Islands.”

According to the plea agreement, Puglisi will have to liquidate several personal bank accounts, homes in Palm Harbor and St. John and an Audi A8 as part of the agreement to pay back USF.

He also agreed to cooperate with authorities in any investigations of others who may have been involved and to testify against those people.

“He is sorry that his actions negatively affected his family, caused financial loss to USF, and violated the law,” the filing for a lesser sentence says. “Puglisi has learned from this situation, made substantial person changes, vows to pay restitution, and will never be engaged in criminal conduct again.”

Puglisi was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William F. Jung. 

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