The former chief fundraiser for Our Lady of the Lake hospitals admitted in federal court Thursday that he embezzled more than $550,000 over a seven-year period, stealing gift cards meant for cancer patients, flying family and friends to LSU and New Orleans Saints football games and sending money to persons who did little to no work for the foundation he headed.

John Paul Funes, 49, of Baton Rouge, pleaded guilty as charged to wire fraud and money laundering during a brief hearing before U.S. District Judge John deGravelles. Sentencing will occur at a date to be announced.

From high-powered fundraiser to accused OLOL foundation embezzler: Who is John Paul Funes?

Funes faces up to 20 years in prison on each count and up to $750,000 in fines, or twice the gross gain or twice the gross loss derived from the offense, whichever is greater. Any fine would be in addition to any restitution deGravelles may order.

Funes’ lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Walt Green, said afterward Funes plans to make full restitution.

Funes served as president and chief executive officer of the Our Lady of the Lake Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm for Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and its affiliated hospitals, until he was fired in November.

Ex-OLOL Foundation head makes first federal court appearance in embezzling case

Federal prosecutors in Baton Rouge charged Funes in a June 4 bill of information after he waived his right to be indicted by a federal grand jury.

During Funes’ arraignment Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Stevens read a factual basis for Funes’ guilty pleas that largely tracked the language and allegations contained in the bill of information.

“Is that what happened and what you did?” deGravelles asked after the prosecutor finished reading the factual basis.

“Yes, your honor,” replied Funes, who stood next to Green.

Neither Funes nor Green had any comment as they entered and exited the federal courthouse.

Stevens said in court that Funes’ scheme to defraud the OLOL Foundation stretched from 2012 until last September.

Stevens said Funes falsified payment vouchers and created fictitious records to cover up the thefts.

“Because of his position at the Foundation, (Funes) could approve his own vouchers, which enabled him to submit dozens of false and fraudulent vouchers that misrepresented the purpose of the checks without scrutiny,” Stevens said, reading from the factual basis.

For example, the bill of information against Funes alleged he submitted vouchers to pay home medical care for a Children's Hospital patient, then sent checks totaling $107,000 to an unnamed Floridian and the person's daughter. Neither were patients at the hospital, but Funes had a close relationship with their family, the documents state. The pair — identified only as individuals "A" and "B" — then sent about $63,000 back to Funes.

A source close to the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the case publicly, confirmed this week that those persons are the mother and sister of former LSU quarterback Rohan Davey. They have not been charged in the case. Davey was no longer at LSU when the alleged payments were made.

Funes also submitted and approved dozens of payments to individuals “who did little to no work for the Foundation” but to whom Funes wanted to provide financial assistance, including an Individual “C” who received about $180,000 in Foundation funds, the factual basis states.

That $180,000 went to James Alexander, the father of then-LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander, a source close to the case confirmed. Vadal Alexander was a four-year starter for the Tigers from 2012 to 2016.

Robert Munson, senior associate athletics director at LSU, said Thursday the university ”was made aware of specific allegations by Our Lady of the Lake officials in late 2018 and made that information immediately available to the NCAA.”

“As this is an ongoing inquiry, LSU will have no further comment at this time,” he said.

Hospital auditors uncovered the questionable transactions in August, then investigated. At least some of the funds were allegedly used improperly to pay the parent of an LSU athlete, ostensibly as wages for a job, according to two sources familiar with the investigation who asked not to be identified because both said they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Hiring of LSU athlete's parent part of Our Lady of the Lake, John Paul Funes embezzlement probe

Funes also labeled charter flights as “outbound patient transports” so the Foundation’s accounting office would pay for them, Stevens said Thursday in court. As an example, he said, he used $14,000 worth of flights to take family and friends to Tampa for a New Orleans Saints football game on Dec. 31, 2017, and then to Orlando for a Citrus Bowl game featuring LSU and Notre Dame the next day.

In an emailed statement, Green called Funes’ guilty pleas “another step in the continuing process of taking full responsibility for his actions.”

“John Paul remains extremely remorseful for the impact his past actions have had on the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Sisters, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center & Foundation, the community and his family & friends,” the statement read. “He will continue to cooperate with all law enforcement agencies.”

U.S. Attorney Brandon Fremin said in a news release that Funes unjustly enriched himself.

“Not only did Mr. Funes betray his employer and the many benevolent donors whose generosity fueled the mission of the Foundation but he also betrayed the trust of the many great people served by the Foundation,” he added.

Including incentives and other benefits, the Foundation paid Funes $350,000-plus in 2017.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.