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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 13, 2021 1 year ago

Investigators: Nearly $13M stolen from university health system spent at adult web site

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Employee working for USF Health support organization pleads guilty to massive $13 million embezzlement
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

TAMPA — A former manager working with a USF Health support organization has pled guilty to mail fraud in federal court 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, faces up to 20 years in prison and has agreed to fully repay the $12.8 million he stole, according to the plea deal agreed to by prosecutors. A follow-up investigation, however, found he may have stolen upwards of $15 million.

A copy of the indictment was not available on the federal court system’s website, but according to a lengthy statement released by USF, 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.”

Despite internal and external audits, university officials, in the statement, say, “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. Neither person has been identified.

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 released by USF. 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 says. “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 investigation found that “at least one associate or family member was directly involved with Puglisi in the scheme with the adult content provider. The family member is apparently engaged to marry Puglisi’s stepson and is very likely one of the women employed by the adult content provider.”

The report says 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 states 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.  

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.”

The report does not name any of the family members.

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

A sentencing date has not been set.

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