‘We are outraged and disgusted:’ USC orders outside investigation of former medical school dean’s behavior

Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito (Alex J. Berliner / Associated Press)

Faced with mounting anger and questions, USC announced Friday it was hiring an ex-federal prosecutor to investigate reports in The Times that the former dean of the university’s medical school associated with criminals and drug abusers and used methamphetamine and other drugs with them.

“We are outraged and disgusted by this individual’s behavior,” USC President C.L. Max Nikias said in a letter to the campus community, referring to Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, former dean of the Keck School of Medicine.

“It is crucial that we understand how these events occurred,” Nikias said.

The investigation will be overseen by Debra Wong Yang, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles and a former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the Los Angeles Police Department. She was an L.A. Superior Court judge and was appointed U. S. attorney for the Central District of California in May 2002 by President George W. Bush. She is a graduate of Pitzer College and Boston College Law School.

He said that Yang would “conduct a thorough investigation into the details of Carmen Puliafito’s conduct, the university’s response, as well as our existing policies and procedures.”

“All of us must cooperate fully and swiftly” with the investigation, the letter said. “It is critical we understand how and why this happened so we can do everything possible to improve our ability to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Nikias said Yang would present findings and recommendations to the executive committee of the USC board of trustees. He did not say whether the findings would be made public.

Nikias has declined interview requests by The Times, and did not respond to written questions addressing how USC handled the Puliafito affair.

On Monday, when The Times’ lengthy investigation was published, USC announced that Puliafito, 66, had been placed on leave from his positions as a faculty member and Keck eye surgeon, and was no longer seeing patients. The school has been struggling to contend with the fallout from the accounts that the renowned ophthalmologist, who headed the medical school for nearly a decade, led a second life involving meth and other drugs he used with a circle of much younger people.

Puliafito resigned his $1.1-million-a-year dean’s post in March 2016, in the middle of the spring term, saying he wanted to explore outside opportunities.

He did not mention that three weeks earlier, a 21-year-old woman had overdosed in his presence in a Pasadena hotel room. The woman was rushed to a hospital, where she recovered. Police found methamphetamine in the hotel room, according to a police report, but made no arrests.

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A tip about the episode prompted The Times to investigate. The newspaper interviewed six people who said they partied and used drugs with Puliafito in Pasadena, Huntington Beach and Las Vegas, as well as at USC. They ranged in age from the late teens to late 30s. None were USC students.

Members of the group captured their exploits in photos and videos shot in 2015 and 2016.

In one video, a tuxedo-clad Puliafito displays an orange pill on his tongue and says into the camera, “Thought I’d take an ecstasy before the ball.” Then he swallows the pill.

In another, Puliafito uses a butane torch to heat a large glass pipe outfitted for methamphetamine use. He inhales and then unleashes a thick plume of white smoke. Seated next to him on a sofa, a young woman appears to smoke heroin from a piece of heated foil.

On Wednesday, the current medical school dean addressed angry students.

“These allegations, if they are true, they are horrible and despicable,” Dr. Rohit Varma told the gathering of scores of medical scholars and graduate students at the Keck School of Medicine in Boyle Heights.

“He’s a man who had a brilliant career, all gone down the drain,” Varma said. “I’m standing in this place where my predecessor now has this taint. … It is sad.”

He also said that Puliafito had sought treatment in the past for alcoholism, but that the allegations in the article that he used drugs “came as a complete shock to us.”

At the meeting on the Keck campus, students — some wearing hospital scrubs — said university administrators should have known more about Puliafito’s troubling behavior, including reports that he appeared drunk or otherwise intoxicated at campus events. One woman said that it “seems shocking that no one has been able to figure anything out in the last 10 years. … People are now going to be questioning our professionalism.”

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