The Medical Board of California confirmed Wednesday that it was investigating a report in the Los Angeles Times that USC’s former medical school dean abused drugs and associated with criminals and drug users.
“The Medical Board is looking into the allegations based upon the information provided in the L.A. Times article. However we do not discuss complaints or ongoing investigations by law,” Cassandra Hockenson, a spokeswoman for the medical board, said in an emailed statement.
Asked Tuesday if the university had discussed the case of the former dean, Carmen A. Puliafito, with the medical board, USC said reports by peer review organizations were confidential.
“We can confirm, however, that the California Medical Board is aware of the situation,” USC said in a statement. “They have the sole authority to decide whether and how much to investigate.”
The medical board initiates investigations of doctors after receiving a complaint. According to the board, cases are given higher priority if the complaint concerns physician impairment or poses immediate harm to patients.
Puliafito, 66, a renowned eye surgeon, led the Keck School of Medicine for nearly a decade before resigning in 2016. He remained on the Keck faculty and continued to represent the university at public events as recently as Saturday.
On Monday, The Times published a lengthy article reporting that Puliafito, during his tenure as dean, kept company with a circle of criminals and addicts who said he smoked methamphetamine and other drugs with them.
The same day, USC said that Puliafito was no longer seeing patients and was on leave. Attempts to reach Puliafito were unsuccessful.
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.
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 their late teens to late thirties. 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.
USC has declined to say when it first learned of Puliafito’s conduct or how it responded.
On Tuesday, USC President C.L. Max Nikias said in a message to the campus that the the university would “examine and address” the Times reporting, adding “we understand the frustrations expressed about this situation.”