More than six months after Ralph Puglisi pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzling at least $12.8 million from a company affiliated with the University of South Florida, the school is suing him and others it believes could be benefiting from the stolen money.
The list of defendants includes Puglisi’s mother, his ex-wife, his second wife and other relatives and associates. While awaiting sentencing in the federal criminal case, Puglisi is living at the Palm Harbor apartment of his brother, also a defendant in the USF suit.
Though Puglisi’s attorneys previously said he was cooperating to repay the money, USF alleges that neither he nor his co-defendants have enough assets to do that.
University officials say the amount stolen now exceeds $12.9 million, a slightly larger sum than when Puglisi pleaded guilty. They are seeking damages for triple that amount and a permanent injunction to prevent any of the defendants from selling or disposing of assets purchased with embezzled funds.
The public interest is served by “not rewarding the act of stealing USF’s money,” the lawsuit says.
The case, filed Feb. 22 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, provides further details about Puglisi’s actions from 2014 to 2020, when “hundreds of irregular and unauthorized non-business transactions” were charged to company credit cards, according to the complaint.
Puglisi, 60, was hired in 2006 by University Medical Service Association, a nonprofit that works with USF and provides staffing and other support for the university’s health care enterprise. Months later, he was promoted to accounting manager, where he had access to two company cards and VISA gift cards that were used for the majority of the charges.
The majority of the stolen funds — about $11.5 million — went to adult-content sites, and some of it was routed back to Puglisi through a scheme with a woman who later became his daughter-in-law.
One of the adult websites Puglisi frequented, MyGirlFund, allows users to buy credits, then use them to pay people with profiles on the site. They can “cash out” those credits for real dollars at any point. MyGirlFund also is being sued by USF.
According to a USF investigation, Puglisi visited the profile of a user on that site more than 2,800 times over a two-year span. The user, Francisca Roman Ruth, went by the name “YourGirl94″ on the site and now is believed to be married to Puglisi’s stepson. She also is a defendant in the USF lawsuit.
Puglisi and Ruth are believed to have had an arrangement where she sent 60 percent of what she received back to Puglisi. At one point, according to the USF investigation, she mailed him a check for more than $18,000, resulting in a mail fraud charge for Puglisi.
Puglisi is believed to have had a similar arrangement with another user, “Amber89X0.” That woman, Stephanie Sahler, who lives in Canada, is being sued as well by USF. Puglisi is said to have paid more than $22,000 in airfare for trips for Sahler and her friends to travel from Canada to Orlando and more than $43,000 in Walt Disney World resort trips, according to the lawsuit.
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It further alleges that Puglisi divorced his first wife, Ida in June 2018 and agreed to pay $1,000 a month in alimony. They were married 20 years. She is being sued for having received an estimated $30,000 in alimony payments from embezzled funds.
Also according to the lawsuit, Puglisi spent more than $9,900 on wedding-related items in St. John U.S. Virgin Islands, when he married his second wife, Donna.
In 2018, the new couple formed an LLC, Tropical Famiglia Investments, which also is a defendant in the USF case.
From September 2018 to August 2019, Puglisi paid more than $648,000 to Tropical Famiglia Investments, the lawsuit alleges. In May 2019, Tropical Famiglia Investments bought a vacant property in St. John for $345,000. In May 2020, it bought a house in Palm Harbor for $230,000.
Puglisi also is accused of having spent more than $120,000 for improvements to the Palm Harbor home, including $33,000 on a pool. The home sold in July 2021 — months after Puglisi had been fired — for $600,000.
In addition, according to court documents, Puglisi used the stolen money on an Audi luxury vehicle, two payments of more than $26,000 for a rental property in St. John, and more than $72,000 in rent for his mother and brother. He is accused of spending on his daughter’s wedding and making a $100 payment to his wife Donna’s PayPal account.
Anthony Rickman, Puglisi’s attorney in the federal case, said his client could not comment due to the pending sentencing.