A former accounting manager for the University of South Florida’s University Medical Service Association (UMSA) has admitted to defrauding the nonprofit of at least $12.8 million and filtering the money through an adult website. Ralph Puglisi has pleaded guilty to one charge of mail fraud. As part of the actions leading up to entering his guilty plea, Puglisi admitted to defrauding the association, a nonprofit that supports the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine.
“The money was stolen from revenues generated by patient care; No state, philanthropic, grant or research monies were stolen,” according to a statement from the University of South Florida.
According to Puglisi’s plea agreement, from around June 2014 through November 2019, Puglisi used UMSA credit cards to make purchases for his benefit. Additionally, he falsified journal records to create the illusion that the charges were related to UMSA business.
Puglisi’s fraud came to light when, on Nov. 30, 2020, UMSA notified the University of South Florida’s Internal Audit Department that Puglisi might have processed fraudulent UMSA credit card charges, according to a report from investigators retained by the University of South Florida to check into inconsistencies.
According to the plea deal, starting in roughly August 2018, Puglisi recruited at least one woman – his future daughter-in-law – to enlist with an adult website. Puglisi began making donations to her using UMSA credit cards. The woman would keep 40% of the contributions and mail Puglisi the remainder, less the amount needed to pay taxes on the amount she kept.
There is some question as to how much went through the adult site. According to the plea deal, Puglisi laundered more than $1.3 million through this scheme. But in documents related to the investigation commissioned by University of South Florida, investigators put the amount laundered through the site at around $11.5 million. Contacted by The NonProfit Times, a spokesperson responded: “Questions about the criminal investigation should be directed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The number in the [investigators’] report is not a typo.”
According to the investigators’ report, Puglisi processed $12.86 million in invalid charges, including $11.5 million through around 22,000 transactions with the adult site MyGirlFund.com from 2014 through 2020. Puglisi did so with the help of his future daughter-in-law, investigators alleged in the report.
The report, which claimed Puglisi was responsible for an additional $1.5 million in “suspicious charges,” alleged that the roughly $3 million that did not go through the adult site went to: a limited liability corporation (LLC) owned by Puglisi and his wife; non-business travel of Puglisi’s, his family and friends; entertainment; rent for Puglisi’s family members; household improvements to Puglisi’s residence; Puglisi’s wedding expenses; gifts to Puglisi family members; Puglisi’s automobile; and other miscellaneous personal expenses.
Puglisi also allegedly purchased airline tickets and hotel and hospitality packages for individuals, including at least one female based in Canada, with the cards, according to the report. He further purchased Visa gift cards, usually used by UMSA as employee awards and incentives, which were redeemed at mygirlfund.com.
The statement from University of South Florida only references the $12.8 million in fraudulent charges, without mentioning the $1.5 million in suspicious charges.
Puglisi began serving as UMSA accounting manager starting in October 2006. By late 2015, Puglisi had complete control over credit card authorization, management and record-keeping functions. Puglisi was terminated in December 2020, along with his immediate supervisor and UMSA’s internal auditor.
As part of the plea deal, Puglisi also agreed to cooperate with other related ongoing investigations. The plea was entered in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division on Aug. 12. The case number is 8:21-cr-00269-WFJ-AEP.
The count caries a maximum sentence of 20 years, a fine of twice the gross gain or loss or $250,000, whichever is greater, three years of supervised release and a special assessment of $100 per felony count. Puglisi agreed to forfeiture of assets to assist in making restitutions to UMSA.