Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the information below.
A former accounting manager who embezzled nearly $13 million from the University of South Florida is asking a federal judge for leniency when he is sentenced next week, attributing his actions largely to relationship and mental health problems.
A memo filed by his attorney this week in Tampa federal court offers a first look at what motivated Ralph Puglisi as he used company credit cards to funnel money through an adult website before spending it on travel, home improvements, real estate, wedding costs and other expenses.
Puglisi, 60, was an accounting manager for University Medical Service Association, a nonprofit that provides staffing and other support for USF’s health care sector. He pleaded guilty last year to stealing at least $12.8 million, with the majority of the credit card charges going to the website mygirlfund.com.
The memo states that Puglisi’s embezzling began in 2014, eight years after he was hired, and coincided with meeting his partner, Donna McCoy.
“Puglisi believed that in order to keep Donna happy, he would have to provide her with a luxurious lifestyle,” the memo said. “So, in addition to using the ... credit cards for his own personal expenditures, he also used the cards for home furnishing, trips, and gifts for her and her family.”
The memo said Puglisi felt compelled to help her “achieve her dream job of working in international real estate,” so the two used the stolen funds to set up bank accounts, purchase land in the Caribbean and pay salaries and expenses for their company, Tropical Familia Investment.
But the couple’s relationship suffered problems, the memo said, and Puglisi “turned to the internet for sexual gratification and companionship.”
He began frequenting mygirlfund.com, a website that allows users to buy credits and donate them to people with profiles on the site who can “cash out” those credits for real dollars at any point. Users can also tip webcam models.
A USF investigation found that Puglisi had about 22,000 interactions on the site. The memo from his lawyer states that mygirlfund.com made millions off the tips Puglisi left. The site is being sued in a separate lawsuit by USF.
The memo states that Puglisi began visiting the profile of a Canadian woman, who communicated with him outside of the webcam performances. It said Puglisi believed the two were in love and he began sending her money for her child and family.
A USF investigation found he spent $22,486 on airline tickets for the woman and her friends to fly to Orlando and another $43,662 on Disney World Resorts. Puglisi’s lawyer said he paid her over $6 million all told, which she used for vacations, travel, cancer treatment for one of her family members and investment accounts.
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“She preyed on and manipulated Puglisi into believing that, by paying her millions, she would eventually get out of the ‘adult industry’ and start a better life with him and her family,” the memo said.
The memo states that Puglisi’s son and daughter-in-law approached him, knowing of his money schemes, and asked how they could profit by helping him. The daughter-in-law then set up a profile on mygirlfund.com that Puglisi would visit. They arranged that she would send back 60% of the tips to him and keep 40%.
The daughter-in-law and the Canadian woman are among the defendants in the USF lawsuit.
The memo also details Puglisi’s physical and mental health issues, saying he had an abusive childhood, has suffered from anxiety, depression and other disorders throughout his life and was involved in a car accident during the 1990s that resulted in a brain injury.
After the investigation, the memo said, he lost his job and family members abandoned him. It said he attempted suicide and was admitted for care under the Baker Act.
Since then, Puglisi has cooperated with investigators, expressed remorse, sought counseling and other treatment and has become the primary caretaker for his elderly mother, according to the memo.
After hitting “rock bottom,” it said, Puglisi got a job at a Dollar General making $10 an hour, and later at a Walmart making around $2,080 a month. It said he has paid back more than $1.2 million and agreed to liquidate his properties in the British Virgin Islands.
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.
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If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.