Accounting manager who handled USF health care funds embezzled millions

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A former employee of a nonprofit corporation affiliated with the University of South Florida has pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzling at least $12.8 million, with the bulk of that money flowing to an adult website, the school announced late Thursday.

The employee, Ralph Puglisi, signed a plea agreement in June and it was filed this week in U.S. District Court in Tampa, the university said. State corporation records list Puglisi with a Palm Harbor address.

Puglisi, 59, was an accounting manager for University Medical Service Association, known as UMSA, a nonprofit that provides staffing and other support for the university’s sprawling health care enterprise. The corporation employs people at USF Health, Tampa General Hospital, the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in downtown Tampa, and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Leaders at UMSA were notified of suspicious activity in November and Puglisi was fired within days, according to an investigative report commissioned by Greenberg Traurig, a legal firm representing the university. Also fired were the corporation’s director of financing, who supervised Puglisi, and its internal auditor, the report said.

It found that Puglisi made at least $12.86 million in non-business charges on UMSA credit cards, with at least $11.5 million going to an adult content website, mygirlfund.com.

About 22,000 interactions with the site were recorded, and a search found that Puglisi frequented the profile of a woman on the site believed to be his stepson’s fiancée, the report said. It said an Excel document was found that showed the two split $743,968 in profits, with 60 percent of the money going to Puglisi.

The nature of the transactions and other details were unclear, but the report stated: “The investigative team developed a working theory that Puglisi worked either with the principals of the adult content provider, or with the female profiles of the adult content provider in order to financially benefit from funds charged to the UMSA credit card.”

The website allows users to buy credits and then donate them to the people with profiles on the site, who can “cash out” those credits for real dollars at any point. Puglisi visited the profile user believed to be his stepson’s fiancée more than 2,800 times over a two-year span, the report said.

It also stated that Puglisi frequented the profile of another woman based in Toronto and paid more than $22,486 in airline tickets for her and friends to fly to Orlando. Another $43,662 was spent at Disney World Resorts, the report said.

In addition, Puglisi is accused of making $647,882 in payments to a limited liability company he owned with his wife, plus other expenditures, including: $374,598 for personal travel; $190,991 in rent for a family member; $120,575 on household improvements; $21,610 in cell phone bills; $15,765 for a personal real estate attorney in the Virgin Islands; $1,799 for a family member’s wedding costs; and $100 to his wife’s PayPal account.

An expanded investigation found Vanilla Visa gift cards, purchased as an employee incentive, that were used for transactions on mygirlfund.com. Through the scheme, Puglisi also sent a check of more than $18,900 through the U.S. Postal Service, resulting in a mail fraud charge, according to records.

The report concluded that UMSA’s internal controls for preventing fraud were weak. The university’s internal audit team identified numerous transactions where Puglisi had processed entries in a way that concealed his actions, the report said.

In a statement, USF said UMSA has since “implemented enhanced control structures, including upgrading financial reporting systems, to better protect against criminal acts.”

The stolen money came from funds generated by patient care and no state, philanthropic, grant or research money was impacted, the statement said.

It said the university “is a victim of a serious crime by a person who held a position of trust.”

According to an Internal Revenue Service report that UMSA is required to file as a nonprofit, the corporation took in revenues of nearly $306 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020. Most of that sum consisted of disbursements made “on behalf of the College of Medicine’s 19 clinical departments for support of approximately 466 faculty and 310 support staff,” the filing said.

Under the agreement he signed in federal court, Puglisi pleaded guilty to scheming to defraud UMSA and agreed to repay the money. The agreement offers a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. It also calls for no more than three years of supervised release and $100 per felony count.

“Mr. Puglisi has been cooperative throughout the investigation and has taken steps toward paying 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 notified its board of trustees about the matter, in addition to the state Board of Governors, leaders in the Florida House and Senate, the Governor’s Office, and the state Auditor General.

The USF Police department was involved in searching and securing Puglisi’s office.

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