Editorial

USC’s silence on its medical school dean’s double life is deafening

Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, the former dean of the USC Keck School of Medicine, led quite a rollicking double life. According to a Times investigation, he was a highly respected doctor, administrator and prolific fundraiser for the university — but at the same time, according to explicit videos and interviews, he found time to party with a circle of criminals and drug users who said he used methamphetamine and other drugs with them.

When Puliafito resigned last year, he announced he was leaving to explore outside opportunities. After stepping down, he was feted by his colleagues. USC President C.L. Max Nikias praised Puliafito for helping Keck rise in the all-important U.S. News & World Report rankings of medical schools.

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

But there was no mention that the dean’s resignation came just three weeks after a 21-year-old woman overdosed in his presence in a Pasadena hotel room. Police found methamphetamine at the scene, and Puliafito was listed as a witness to the overdose on the official police report (which was written not at the time of the incident, but only after repeated inquiries by Times reporters.) Puliafito was not arrested or charged, even though the police found illegal drugs, but an anonymous witness called USC President Nikias’ office and told two employees about the dean’s presence at the time of the hotel overdose. Shortly after the witness called, Puliafito stepped down.

Beyond the salacious details, Puliafito’s double life and his resignation last year raise troubling questions for both the university and the Pasadena police. How much did university officials know about the dean’s behavior, and when did they learn it? Why did the university keep him on the medical faculty after learning about the incident at the hotel? Why was no police report written at the time of the overdose? Why was there so little follow-up? Were the police right not to arrest anyone?

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The Times’ investigation uncovered apparent breaches of medical ethics, as well as possible criminal violations. Interviews and documents showed that Puliafito — an ophthalmologist — wrote a prescription for asthma inhalers for two of his party buddies, apparently to soothe lungs raw from smoking marijuana and methamphetamine. Another man said the dean gave him meth while the man was living at a sober home for recovering addicts. And during the overdose at the hotel, Puliafito told the 911 operator that the woman had just drunk alcohol, when police later confirmed that she was “obviously under the influence of narcotics,” which were found in the room.

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USC President Nikias and Provost Michael Quick, who was Puliafito’s boss, refused repeated requests for information. The university finally released a statement Monday, after The Times’ article appeared, that said: “If the assertions … are true, we hope that Carmen receives care and treatment that will lead him to a full recovery.”

We don’t know for sure why USC was so reluctant to discuss the subject. But it has been estimated that Puliafito raised more than $1 billion for the school. As recently as this past weekend, Puliafito spoke at a Keck-sponsored program in Pasadena, and his USC web page said he still was accepting patients at campus eye clinics. The university’s statement on Monday said that he is on leave and not seeing patients.

USC is a private institution but it receives considerable public funding for its medical research and serves the public through its hospitals and clinics. As dean, Puliafito oversaw hundreds of medical students and thousands of professors and clinicians. The possibility that the dean engaged in serious criminal and ethical transgressions is more than a personnel matter — it reflects on the values and leadership of the university as a whole. USC’s silence is deafening.

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