'LA Times' Investigates The Double Life Of A Med School Dean

Jul 26, 2017
Originally published on July 26, 2017 8:40 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Dr. Carmen Puliafito was dean of the medical school at the University of Southern California. A photo in the LA Times shows a man in a dark suit and tie, a white shirt and a serious expression.

MARC DUVOISIN: His reputation was as a brilliant scientist and medical innovator and also as a great fundraiser. And he was someone who could raise the profile and sort of the research ranking and heft of an institution.

INSKEEP: Marc Duvoisin of the Los Angeles Times edited a team of reporters who found another side to the medical school dean. There seemed to be no reason to suspect him of anything until he stepped back from the dean's job in March of 2016 - said he was pursuing another job. That's when an LA Times reporter, Paul Pringle, got a tip about an event at a hotel earlier that month.

DUVOISIN: And the tip was that a prominent person in the medical establishment at USC, that he'd been present or somehow involved in a drug overdose involving a 21-year-old woman. So Paul, with that tip, began to try to develop that and ran into a wall. He couldn't get any information out of the Pasadena Police Department. He persisted, went to the fire department and other institutions and was able to establish by looking at a call for service law that a 911 call had been placed from the hotel on the date that he'd been tipped about.

He was able to get a recording of the 911 call. And on it, he heard the voice of a man who he later determined was Dr. Puliafito conversing with an emergency operator about the condition of a young woman in his presence.

INSKEEP: Now, I think you're telling me that all this was learned by the reporter but not actually Dr. Puliafito's name. How did that come to you?

DUVOISIN: Paul established in his early reporting that the Pasadena Police Department had not prepared an incident report on this incident, which was unusual. And after a couple of months, the Pasadena Police Department acknowledged to him that a report should have been prepared and a report was being prepared. And he was able to obtain a copy of that report. Almost all of the report was redacted.

One of the few items of information that remained un-redacted was a name - in a field on the report for witness was listed Dr. Carmen Puliafito. With that report, Paul was able to place Dr. Puliafito at the scene of that overdose, in that room.

INSKEEP: So what was it that was going on in that room, as best you can determine?

DUVOISIN: Later, with the help of some other reporters who were added to the story to assist him, Paul was able to make contact with the young woman, whose name is Sarah Warren, now 22 years old. And he was able to interview her. And what he learned from talking to her was that she'd been in a relationship with Dr. Puliafito for some time, for about 15 months, which began when he reached her, I believe, through an escort site when she was involved in prostitution.

They smoked methamphetamine together, and they became steady companions. He paid all kinds of expenses for her. Then they used drugs together.

INSKEEP: Did you learn that that was symptomatic of his entire life?

DUVOISIN: It's a picture of fragments, Steve, because we don't have Dr. Puliafito's cooperation and very, very little cooperation from USC - or none, actually, until after publication. But what we do know is that we were able to get ahold of a number of videos and photographs that Dr. Puliafito, Sarah Warren and members of their circle took of each other when they were partying in various places.

There's a video of Dr. Puliafito putting what looks like an ecstasy pill on his tongue and announcing that he's going to have an ecstasy before the ball. And then he swallows it. He's wearing a tuxedo in this video. Members of the circle who are in these photographs include several people with records of drug use, drug possession and possession for purpose of sale.

INSKEEP: Was he ever involved with students, so far as you know?

DUVOISIN: None of the people that we've connected him to were USC students.

INSKEEP: What have people connected to USC said as more has become known about his life?

DUVOISIN: Every indication we have, Steve, is that the campus is in turmoil over this. I think people associated with USC are concerned for the reputation of the university. There's a lot of ferment and distress that this information came out the way it did.

INSKEEP: Was the university slow to investigate this?

DUVOISIN: All we know is what we've published, which is that when we - when Paul Pringle began seeking information over a year ago, he could not even engage at all. He couldn't even get phone calls returned. One image that stays with me was when Paul, in exasperation, hand delivered a letter to the home of the president of USC, Max Nikias, asking for an interview to discuss the circumstances surrounding Dr. Puliafito's resignation as dean in the spring of 2016.

And I remember when that envelope was returned to our offices, the LA Times newsroom by courier, the USC had sent a courier to return the envelope to us unopened with a complaint that the reporter had stepped over the line. Having that image is powerful, of not even opening the envelope to find out what this matter is about and whether it needed to be addressed.

INSKEEP: Marc Duvoisin of the Los Angeles Times, thanks very much.

DUVOISIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, after resigning as dean, Carmen Puliafito remained on the faculty at USC. But last week, the university banned him from campus and says it's begun the process of firing him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.