USC moves to fire, ban from campus former medical school dean over 'egregious behavior'

Faced with mounting questions and anger on campus, USC announced Friday that it was hiring an ex-federal prosecutor to investigate a report by 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.

USC officials said they had begun the process to strip Puliafito of his faculty tenure and terminate him. In a separate letter to the faculty, Provost Michael W. Quick said the university had just learned about “egregious behavior on the part of the former dean concerning substance abuse activities with people who aren’t affiliated with USC.”

The statements by USC’s top officials were much more strongly worded than comments they made earlier in the week.

Quick said that shift was due to evidence officials reviewed Friday.

“This was the first time we saw such information first-hand,” Quick wrote. “It is extremely troubling and we need to take serious action.”

He did not reveal the evidence or say how it was different from the detailed account of Puliafito’s behavior published in The Times on Monday.

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Puliafito is “barred from our campuses and any association with USC, including attending or participating in university events,” the provost said.

Puliafito had continued to represent USC in public as recently as Saturday, when he spoke at a medical education seminar in Pasadena sponsored by the Keck School.

The Times report said that Puliafito used drugs with a circle of much younger people while leading the medical school.

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

The university’s 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.

Yang represented USC when it faced a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against USC in 2012 by the parents of two graduate students who were slain off-campus. The suit was dismissed in 2013.

Yang’s profile page on the Gibson Dunn website says she has worked as an adjunct professor for USC’s Gould School of Law. It does not say when she taught there. She did not immediately respond to an interview request.

The law firm has close ties to USC. Its managing partner, Kenneth M. Doran, is a graduate of the USC law school and a former chairman of its board of councilors. He has also been a prominent fundraiser for the school. Gibson Dunn was cited in USC Law magazine in 2009 for achieving “100% participation” by its lawyers in a fundraising drive. Of 28 law firms cited for their generosity, Gibson Dunn had the most USC alumni, with more than 30, according to the magazine.

Nikias 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.

Puliafito, who led the medical school for nearly a decade, 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.

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.

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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.”

Yang 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.

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

adam.elmahrek@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

9:40 p.m. Updated with more on Gibson Dunn

5:20 p.m.: Updated with USC beginning the process to terminate Puliafito.

5:08 p.m.: Updated with new details from provost, background on Yang.

4:15 p.m.: Updated with new details from USC.

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