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Top USC medical school official feared dean was 'doing drugs' and alerted administration, he testifies

Top USC medical school official feared dean was 'doing drugs' and alerted administration, he testifies
Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito. (Alex J. Berliner / Associated Press)

A former vice dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine testified Tuesday that he feared the school’s then-dean, Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, “could be doing drugs” and expressed concerns about his general well-being to the university’s No. 2 administrator before Puliafito abruptly left his job in 2016.

Dr. Henri Ford’s testimony at a hearing of the state Medical Board marks the first suggestion that any USC administrator had suspicions about Puliafito’s possible drug use before he stepped down. A Times investigation in 2017 found Puliafito led a secret second life of using illegal drugs with a circle of young criminals and addicts. Puliafito testified about his behavior at the hearing Tuesday, saying he took drugs with one young woman on a weekly basis.

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Ford said that he decided to alert USC Provost Michael Quick after receiving reports in early 2016 that Puliafito was partying in hotels with people of “questionable reputation,” and that he came to worry about his mental stability.

Ford said he did not have “prima facie evidence of anything.” But if his concern “was credible in nature, then something needed to be done." He did not detail his conversations with Quick but said he asked the provost “to verify everything with my sources. I know he did.”

Quick issued a statement Tuesday confirming that it was Ford’s information that led him to reach out to other USC staffers about Puliafito and to ultimately end his deanship. However, he said, “if Dr. Henri Ford had firsthand knowledge that Puliafito was engaged in drug use, he did not share that with me nor did he report that to authorities or the peer medical staff.”

Quick added that he did “not recall any conversation that the dean was using drugs or I would have acted on that information immediately as it would have been a clear violation of our policies and a reportable offense.”

Ford said he reached out to Quick’s office in March 2016. It was the same month a young woman suffered an overdose in Puliafito’s room at a Pasadena hotel. Under pressure, Puliafito resigned as dean three weeks later.

Quick said in a letter to Keck’s faculty, staff and students at the time that Puliafito chose to resign as dean to return to an academic position in ophthalmology.

USC did not report Puliafito to the medical board. It allowed the eye surgeon to remain on the faculty and to continue seeing patients for 16 more months, until a Times investigation disclosed that he used methamphetamine and other drugs while serving as dean.

Eleven days after The Times’ story appeared, in July 2017, USC President C.L. Max Nikias said in a letter to the university community that during “his nearly 10 years as dean, we received various complaints about Dr. Puliafito’s behavior, which were addressed through university personnel procedures; this included disciplinary action and professional development coaching.”

Nikias wrote that, in the weeks after the overdose at the Pasadena hotel, Quick consulted with him after two employees complained about Puliafito’s behavior. Quick confronted Puliafito and the dean chose to resign, Nikias said in the letter.

Nikias stressed “at that time, no university leader was aware of any illegal or illicit activities, which would have led to a review of his clinical responsibilities.”

Nikias did not respond to an interview request Tuesday.

The medical board hearing underway in downtown Los Angeles will determine whether Puliafito is allowed to resume practicing medicine.

After The Times’ report, the board launched an investigation and Puliafito’s license was suspended. The investigation resulted in allegations that Puliafito abused drugs on days he worked at Keck and "would return to his medical office to see patients within hours of using methamphetamine." The board alleged he used methamphetamine and heroin at Keck and other locations in 2015 and 2016.

Puliafito took the stand Tuesday for the first time. He placed much of the blame for his methamphetamine use on Sarah Warren, the woman who overdosed in the Hotel Constance. Puliafito claimed Warren upended his life by introducing him to the drug. He testified that he subsequently used methamphetamine with her once a week.

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Warren, he said, put Xanax in his drink during a conference trip to Las Vegas, causing him to pass out for 18 hours. During that time, he missed his meeting and she withdrew thousands of dollars from his account, Puliafito testified. “I could have been killed in Las Vegas. I didn’t really understand that. I forgave her.

“My insight was limited. I had a willing suspension of disbelief that this individual would ever hurt me. … I loved her and she expressed feelings of love to me.”

He denied that he provided drugs to Warren. She told The Times as well as the Medical Board that he gave her methamphetamine and other drugs. She invoked the 5th Amendment and was excused from testifying at the hearing. But the judge overseeing the case is considering declarations made by Warren and her brother.

Ford, who recently was hired as dean of the University of Miami’s medical school, was called as a witness by Puliafito, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Ford testified that he was shocked that USC did not require Puliafito to seek treatment. Rather, Ford said, administrators informed him that Puliafito resigned as dean after being told they no longer had confidence in him. Ford also said he worried that Puliafito would be “found dead in a hotel room.”

Ford testified that he first alerted Quick about Puliafito’s behavior several months earlier when the dean did not show up to the Las Vegas conference because he was “partying” in his hotel room with questionable company. Ford testified Quick promised to follow up about the episode but never did. Attempts to reach Quick about this late Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Last week, USC announced that Nikias was stepping down in the wake of a Times report that the university for years ignored complaints that a campus gynecologist had engaged in misconduct with students. Dr. George Tyndall has been accused of improperly touching and sexually harassing patients over a period of decades. USC did not report Tyndall to the medical board until after The Times began interviewing USC employees about him.

That was 21 months after the university quietly suspended Tyndall, who later received a financial settlement in exchange for resigning. Tyndall has denied any wrongdoing.

Rick Caruso, chairman of the USC Board of Trustees, said Tuesday that he was “really troubled” by Ford’s testimony.

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“I’m going to get to the bottom of it,” Caruso said.

Caruso and a committee of the trustees have commissioned an investigation of the Tyndall affair by law firm O’Melveny & Myers. A separate inquiry into the Puliafito matter has been conducted by former federal prosecutor Debra Yang and her firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. The Puliafito probe is said to be in its final stages. Caruso said the Tyndall investigation will be wrapped up by the start of USC’s fall semester.

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