Ralph Puglisi had been embezzling millions of dollars for years when he decided to try a new trick: laundering money through the pornographic website profile of a relative’s fiancee, investigators found.
With the millions he stole, Puglisi renovated his house, covered rent for one of his parents, paid for a relative’s wedding expenses, traveled, chartered yachts and bought land on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, investigators found. But higher-ups at the nonprofit where Puglisi worked began digging into ballooning expenses. It didn’t take long to unearth what he had been hiding.
Puglisi, 59, who was a manager at a nonprofit tied to the University of South Florida’s medical system, admitted he stole at least $12.8 million over a six-year period, according to court records filed in the U.S. District Court in Tampa. He was working as an accounts manager for the University Medical Services Association, which pays for the operation of USF’s sprawling medical system.
An investigation commissioned by university officials found he may have stolen upward of $15 million.
His lawyer, Anthony Rickman, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that Puglisi “has accepted responsibility.” “Mr. Puglisi has been cooperative throughout the investigation and has taken steps toward paying restitution,” Rickman wrote.
Puglisi started working for the nonprofit in 2006, and by late 2015, had exclusive control of its four credit card programs, according to a 61-page report prepared for the university by Protiviti, a consulting firm specializing in forensic audits. That control gave Puglisi the sole authority to set up new credit card accounts, change spending limits, manage card access and terminate accounts.
On Nov. 30, 2020, his bosses alerted the university’s auditors that Puglisi may have misspent roughly $15 million. The notification led the university to retain a law firm, which in turn hired Protiviti. The consulting firm worked with university auditors on a months-long investigation into Puglisi’s spending. The university’s law firm also notified the U.S. attorney’s office in Tampa and the FBI, which started the criminal investigation that led to Puglisi’s guilty plea in June.
Puglisi was put on administrative leave on Dec. 1 and fired three days later. The nonprofit’s director of financing and accounting, who was Puglisi’s direct supervisor and internal auditor were also fired.
In their investigation, federal authorities found that Puglisi made many unauthorized purchases between June 2014 and November 2020. Those included not just the home renovations, travel and yacht charters, but also payments to women on an interactive adult content website.
To cover his tracks, Puglisi doctored journal entries to make it seem like the charges were related to the nonprofit’s business, the court records state. At least $11.5 million of the stolen funds went to the adult website, mygirlfund.com, which promises users the chance to connect “with sexy girls you won’t find anywhere else,” according to Protiviti’s investigative report.
Puglisi had about 22,000 interactions with the site, Protiviti’s investigators found. He frequented the profile of a woman based in Toronto and paid more than $22,400 to fly her and her friends to Orlando three times. He spent another $43,700 to put them up at Disney World resorts, according to the consulting firm’s report.
Around August 2018, Puglisi recruited a separate unnamed woman from mygirlfund to assist in his scheme, federal prosecutors wrote, although they did not identify the “interactive adult website” cited in the audit report by name. Protiviti’s investigators, who say the woman is “very likely” the fiancee of Puglisi’s relative, found he visited her profile more than 2,800 times in two years.
Puglisi again used the nonprofit’s credit cards, according to court records, this time to pay the woman he had recruited. She kept 40 percent of what Puglisi gave her and kicked back the rest via check, minus what they set aside for taxes. For example, in November 2019, she allegedly mailed him a check in the amount of $18,953.28. Puglisi laundered more than $1.3 million through the woman, according to federal prosecutors.
“The defendant made false journal entries creating the illusion that these charges were related to [the nonprofit’s] business,” the plea agreement states. Despite internal and external audits, no one detected Puglisi’s actions until leaders at USF Health questioned rising costs, according to a statement from the university.
University officials described Puglisi’s embezzlement as “an isolated, criminal act.” The stolen money was revenue from patient care and did not include state, federal, grant or donated money, they said. “USF is a victim of a serious crime by a person who held a position of trust,” the university wrote.
Protiviti’s investigators determined the nonprofit’s internal controls for preventing fraud were weak. In their statement, university officials said the nonprofit has since “implemented enhanced control structures, including upgrading financial reporting systems, to better protect against criminal acts.”
As part of his plea agreement, Puglisi agreed to pay back at least $12.8 million that he stole. He faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years when he’s sentenced at a later court hearing.