A Florida accountant who admitted embezzling more than $12.8million from a non-profit at a Florida university and laundering it through an adult website has been pictured for the first time as he admitted the fraud.
Ralph Puglisi, 59, of Palm Harbor, Florida, was found to have made the non-business charges on two company credit cards while working as an accounting manager for the University Medical Service Association. It is an organization at the University of South Florida that provides staffing and other support for the school’s health care endeavors.
He then used the adult website mygirlfund.com to clean about $11.5million of the stolen money, which he then spent to fund a life of luxury, including property in the US Virgin Islands, chartering yachts, and an Audi. The site lets users chat with women in exchange for money.
Puglisi was spotted walking out of the Sam Gibbons United States Courthouse in Downtown Tampa, Florida, flanked by his lawyers – attorney Anthony Rickman and his associate Nicholas Glance.
Robert Puglisi Jr – a third party custodian and brother of the defendant – was also seen leaving the building that afternoon.
During the hearing Puglisi claimed he experienced a ‘traumatic head injury,’ which is predicted to be used at trial as part of his defense. Outside the courthouse Rickman said the role the injury played in the crime would be revealed as the case progresses, but did not offer further information.
His attorney Anthony Rickman asked for permission for his client to travel to Atlanta, Georgia, to see doctors regarding the injury, which he believed requires treatment.
The judge and prosecution permitted the travel but said Puglisi will otherwise be on house arrest and will not be allowed to drink alcohol.
Puglisi will not be locked up nor was there a cash bail posted. He will instead remain at home under the custody of his brother until his sentencing.
Ralph Puglisi, 59, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $12.8million from a non-profit at a Florida university and laundering it through an adult website was seen leaving court after a plea hearing on Thursday
Puglisi (center) was spotted walking out of the Sam Gibbons United States Courthouse in Downtown Tampa, Florida, with his lawyers Anthony Rickman (left) and Nicholas Glance (right)
A man referred to as Robert Puglisi Jr (left) – Ralph’s brother – was also seen leaving the building that afternoon, along with the state prosecutor (right) in the case
If Puglisi breaks the terms of his plea agreement his brother will be responsible for paying $100,000. A teleconference between attorneys is set to take place in November to schedule a sentencing trial.
Federal prosecutors revealed Puglisi made 22,000 interactions with the site in a 19-page plea agreement he signed in June that was filed earlier this month in US District Court in Tampa, according to Tampa Bay Times.
The court documents said Puglisi frequented the profile of a woman on the site believed to be his stepson’s fiancée. He reportedly shared the funds with the relative, giving her 40 per cent of all the money that passed through the adult site.
An Excel spreadsheet on his computer showed a 60/40 split of $743,968 in profits between Puglisi and his stepson’s unidentified fiancée – an ‘adult content provider’ who went by the name YourGirl94.
Puglisi is allegedly being charged for an $18,000 check he cashed from his future daughter-in-law, who is believed to have 40 per cent of the missing stolen money.
He waived his right to an indictment and will therefore be tried based on an accusation alone. He is facing 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine – or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater – followed by three years of supervised release and a $100 fine per felony count.
Puglisi’s lawyers whisked him out of the courthouse and into a black Lexus Sedan ES350
Federal Judge William Jung went through a series of questions to make sure Puglisi understood the terms of his plea agreement, according to Tampa Bay Times.
‘You’re pleading guilty because you did this, what is alleged between pages 17 and 18?’ the judge asked.
‘Yes, your honor,’ Puglisi replied.
‘You embezzled or stole USF’s funds, that’s what you did?’ Jung asked.
‘Yes, your honor,’ Puglisi replied again.
Jung also asked if Puglisi had actually recruited the woman, which the University of Southern Florida (USF) report believed to be his stepson’s fiancée. ‘What do we call it? A laundering thing through the adult website with this lady?’ Jung queried.
Puglisi admitted he had, waiving his right to a trial, as reported by Tampa Bay Times.
Jung said the government has recommended a sentencing toward the low end of the range but Puglisi’s agreement means he will have to accept whatever punishment the judge issues.
Puglisi was picked up in a black Lexus Sedan ES350 with a Florida State University license plate around 12.15pm. It’s unknown where he went as his primary residence was sold as part of the original plea deal, according to court documents.
He had snuck into court earlier in the day – so as to go unrecognized – without his lawyers.
Puglisi stole $12.8million from the University Medical Service Association (UMSA) – an organization at the University of South Florida (USF) providing staffing and other support for the school’s health care endeavors. He used the adult website mygirlfund.com to clean about $11.5million of the stolen money
Puglisi frequented the profile of ‘adult content provider’ YourGirl94, court documents said, who is believed to be his stepson’s fiancée. He reportedly shared the funds with the woman, giving her 40 per cent of all the money that passed through the adult site. An Excel spreadsheet on his computer showed a 60/40 split of $743,968 in profits
Puglisi has already taken steps to pay back the stolen money – as per his plea agreement deal – and liquidated several personal bank accounts; homes in Palm Harbor, Florida, and St John; as well as an Audi A8.
‘We don’t want any bond violations,’ Jung told Puglisi. ‘Toe that chalk line. I know you will.’
The court documents did not name any of Puglisi’s family members and no one else has been accused in taking part in the scheme.
‘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 court documents said.
Mygirlfund.com encourages users to ‘have fun talking and flirting with as many girls as you’d like.’
Users can then donate credits to the ‘sexy girls’ they chat with through the site and the women can ‘cash out’ those credits for real dollars.
Court documents reveal Puglisi visited YourGirl94’s profile more than 2,800 times over the course of two years.
He also frequented a Toronto-based woman’s profile and spent some of his illicit cash on her ‘entertainment,’ which included more than $22,486 in airline tickets for the unidentified woman and her friends to fly to Orlando, where another $43,662 was spent at Disney World Resorts.
The accountant, who was fired by the nonprofit, was also accused of making $647,882 in payments to an LLC he owned with his wife that ‘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 court documents said.
His spending ranged from the lavish to the mundane and included $347,598 on personal travel; $190,991 in rent for a family member; $120,575 on home 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, and $100 to his wife’s PayPal account.
The ex-accountant was accused of making $647,882 in payments to an LLC he owned with 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 court documents said
Puglisi frequented a Toronto-based woman’s profile as well. He spent $22,486 in airline tickets for the unidentified woman and her friends to fly to Orlando where another $43,662 was spent at Disney World Resorts
A deeper investigation revealed that he used two Vanilla Visa gift cards – one for $8.9million and another for $2.5million – purchased as an employee incentive to complete the transactions on mygirlfund.com and launder the money.
In addition, Puglisi is facing a mail fraud charge after receiving a check for $18,953.28 in November 2019 through the US Postal Service – allegedly from YourGirl94.
The embezzlement spanned six years, starting in June 2014. Puglisi started working for UMSA in 2006 and by late 2015 had exclusive control of its credit card programs, the Washington Post reported.
According to a 61-page report prepared for USF by consulting firm Protiviti, that control gave Puglisi the sole authority to set up new credit card accounts, change spending limits, manage card access and terminate accounts.
Court documents detailing the charge said Puglisi even planned the whole scheme and sought to obtain more than $12million through it.
He succeeded and on November 30, 2020 his bosses alerted USF auditors that roughly $15million was misspent.
Puglisi’s plea agreement showed that he hid credit card charges with ‘rent payments, extensive home renovations, travel, chartered yachts and contributions with an interactive adult website’.
According to court records, ‘the defendant made false journal entries creating the illusion that these charges were related to UMSA’s business’.
UMSA did not have many protocols in place for preventing fraud, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Records showed that internal an external audits were conducted by UMSA each year of the scheme but the fraud was never detected.
UMSA did not have many protocols in place for preventing fraud. Records showed that internal an external audits were conducted by UMSA each year of the scheme but the fraud was never suspected. UMSA has since ‘implemented enhanced control structures, including upgrading financial reporting systems, to better protect against criminal acts’
The university’s internal audit team was later able to identify many transactions where Puglisi hid his actions.
A statement released by USF following Puglisi’s guilty plea said that UMSA has since ‘implemented enhanced control structures, including upgrading financial reporting systems, to better protect against criminal acts’.
UMSA leaders first noticed suspicious activity in November 2020 and Puglisi was put on administrative leave on December 1, according to the Post. He was fired three days later.
A statement released by the university notified staff and students that USF was ‘a victim of a serious crime by a person who held a position of trust’.
According to an investigative report commissioned by Greenberg Traurig – a legal firm representing the university – UMSA’s internal auditor and Puglisi’s supervisor, the director of financing, were also fired.
Other details about Greenberg Traurig’s investigation remain confidential.
UMSA leaders first noticed suspicious activity in November 2020. Puglisi was put on administrative leave on December 1 and was fired three days later
In a statement issued by USF it was revealed that the stolen money came from funds generated by patient care. No state, philanthropic, grant or research money was impacted.
According to an IRS report, UMSA is required to file as a nonprofit but the organization took in revenues of nearly $306million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020.
Most of that money was payments made ‘on behalf of the College of Medicine’s 19 clinical departments for support of approximately 466 faculty and 310 support staff,’ according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Under the deal signed in federal court Puglisi pleaded guilty to scheming to defraud UMSA and agreed to repay the money.
‘Mr Puglisi has been cooperative throughout the investigation and has taken steps toward paying restitution to the University of South Florida,’ his Rickman said.
The university is pursuing civil action in the case.
UMSA has employed 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.