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USF ‘ineptitude’ allowed millions to be stolen, lawsuit defendant says

Ralph Puglisi, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Tampa on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, 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 ]

An adult website involved in a scheme to embezzle $12.8 million from the University of South Florida says it shouldn’t be forced to reimburse the school, arguing USF was too inept to know the money was being stolen.

The site, MyGirlFund, is asking to be dismissed from a USF lawsuit in Hillsborough County demanding that it return a portion of the money. Ralph Puglisi, an accounting manager who has pleaded guilty to stealing the money, frequented the site as a way to divert funds.

Puglisi was an employee of University Medical Service Association, a nonprofit that works with USF to provide staffing and other support for the university’s health care enterprise. He pleaded guilty last year in Tampa federal court to stealing funds using company credit cards and VISA gift cards.

He is expected to be sentenced in September after after lengthy delays due to his assistance in another case, which may be factored into his sentence.

In it’s lawsuit, filed in February, USF sued Puglisi as well as all parties who were connected with the stolen funds.

Puglisi used the money for alimony payments to his first wife, wedding costs with his second wife, family property and other purchases. But the majority of the stolen funds — an estimated $11.5 million — went to MyGirlFund, some of which came back to Puglisi through a scheme with a woman who later became his daughter-in-law.

The website allows users to buy credits to pay people with profiles on the site. The credits can be “cashed out” to real dollars at any point.

According to a USF investigation, Puglisi visited the profiles of some users thousands of times and arranged a set up where he paid money and received 60 percent of it back. One of the profiles was that of his stepson’s wife.

With another user in Canada, who also sent money back, he paid more than $60,000 for her and her friends to take trips to Orlando and stay at Walt Disney World Resorts. Those women, as well as several Puglisi family members who benefited from the stolen funds, also are being sued.

But in a 40-page memo seeking to be dismissed from the case, MyGirlFund argues it is an innocent party and not responsible for returning the money. Instead, the site points to USF as having shoddy business practices.

“Apparently Puglisi found USF’s ineptitude too tempting,” the memo said.

It states that USF promoted Puglisi to a manager and then “blindly handed Puglisi complete and total control of its credit card programs.”

“USF decided to ignore all firmly established and entrenched business and accounting protocols by allowing Puglisi to operate without any supervision, oversight or effective controls to monitor and check Puglisi’s conduct,” the memo said.

It also argued that USF has no legal grounds to seek the money because Puglisi was an employee of an affiliated organization, not the university itself.

The university has since implemented new checks in its direct support organizations.

On Thursday, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Melissa Polo set a hearing on the issue for Aug. 24. In a related development, the lawyers who wrote the 40-page memo for MyGirlFund withdrew from the case, citing “irreconcilable differences” with their client. A new attorney is representing them.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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