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USF accounting manager pleads guilty to embezzling $12.8 million

Ralph Puglisi has agreed to repay the money, and prosecutors recommended a sentence below the maximum.
Ralph Puglisi, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Tampa on Thursday after he pleaded guilty to embezzling $12.8 million from a nonprofit company affiliated with the University of South Florida. Puglisi was flanked by his two lawyers, Anthony Rickman, left, and Nicholas Glance, right.
Ralph Puglisi, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Tampa on Thursday after he pleaded guilty to embezzling $12.8 million from a nonprofit company affiliated with the University of South Florida. Puglisi was flanked by his two lawyers, Anthony Rickman, left, and Nicholas Glance, right. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Aug. 26

TAMPA — Federal Judge William Jung went through a series of questions Thursday to make sure Ralph Puglisi understood the terms of his plea agreement.

“You’re pleading guilty because you did this, what is alleged between pages 17 and 18?” the judge asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Puglisi said, making his first court appearance since the University of South Florida announced Aug. 12 that he had embezzled $12.8 million from a nonprofit company affiliated with the school. The company, University Medical Service Association, provides staffing and other support to USF’s health care operations.

Related: Accounting manager who handled USF health care funds embezzled millions

The 59-year-old Puglisi, an accounting manager there, had used company credit cards to pay for home renovations, chartered yachts, rent payments and transactions on an adult entertainment website, the plea agreement said.

It stated that $1.3 million was laundered through payments to a woman on the site who kept 40 percent and returned 60 percent to Puglisi, including through a check in the mail, which resulted in a federal mail fraud charge.

A separate investigative report from USF, not included in the agreement, claimed at least $11.5 million of the stolen funds went to the adult website.

“You embezzled or stole USF’s funds, that’s what you did?” Jung asked.

“Yes, your honor.”

He also asked if Puglisi had indeed recruited the woman, which the USF report believed to be his stepson’s fiancée, in “what do we call it? A laundering thing through the adult website with this lady?”

Puglisi admitted he had, waiving his right to a trial.

The judge asked about Puglisi’s education, and whether he felt unduly influenced and in the right state of mind to make the decision, before accepting his plea.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Mosakowski said the government was not seeking detention or a cash bond. Instead, Puglisi will remain at home under the custody of his brother, Robert Puglisi Jr., until his sentencing, with the exception of a trip to Atlanta to treat a traumatic brain injury.

He also must not be under the influence of alcohol or other substances. The Puglisi brothers signed a bond for $100,000 in the event the terms of agreement were broken.

Outside the courthouse, Puglisi’s attorney Anthony Rickman said more information about Puglisi’s brain injury — and the role it played in the crime — would be divulged as the case progresses.

“Obviously there’s something there to it,” he said.

The judge said a teleconference between attorneys would take place in November to set a sentencing date. Under the deal, Puglisi faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a fine of $250,000, or twice the amount of any profit made or money lost to others during the crime, whichever is greater. The sentence also will include three years of supervised release.

Jung said the government has recommended toward the low end of sentencing range, but that Puglisi’s agreement meant he would have to accept whatever sentence the judge issued.

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Rickman said Puglisi has been compliant and is taking steps to pay back the money. The court document stated he agrees to liquidate several assets including property he owns in Palm Harbor and the Virgin Islands, his Audi, jewelry, memorabilia and some bank accounts.

The judge told Puglisi a violation of bond terms could result in jail time.

“We don’t want any bond violations,” he told Puglisi. “Toe that chalk line. I know you will.”

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