For Dr. Carmen Puliafito and a group of younger people he befriended, life was a photo-op.
Partying in Las Vegas or shopping at Target, pumping gas or playing cards, the dean of USC’s medical school and his younger companions captured their time together on camera. They snapped photos and filmed videos of wholesome activities — cuddling a litter of kittens, cheering on the Dodgers — with the same gusto that they recorded hotel room orgies and drug binges.
In the wake of revelations about Puliafito’s double life, USC has taken a strong interest in these images. A private investigator working on behalf of the university last month repeatedly contacted a former member of the group, a recovering addict from Orange County, in an effort to obtain pictures and videos of the former dean.
Asked about the investigator’s work, USC confirmed representatives of the school are interested in obtaining images of the 66-year-old physician and said they are doing so as part of an internal investigation.
Debra Wong Yang, the attorney leading USC’s probe, said the photos could provide important insight about “touchpoints” between Puliafito’s double life and university facilities, staff and patients.
“It is critical that we evaluate all relevant facts and information to guide and inform our review and recommendations to the university,” Yang said in a statement.
USC hired Yang, a former federal prosecutor and L.A. County Superior Court judge, and her blue-chip law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in July in response to a Times report about the dean’s drug use and contacts with criminals.
While university administrators received many complaints about Puliafito’s drinking and temper over the years, they have said they were blindsided by his use of methamphetamine and other drugs while running the Keck School of Medicine. In a letter announcing Yang’s investigation, President C.L. Max Nikias wrote, “It is crucial we understand how these events occurred.”
Some photos have a clear connection to USC. One series of September 2015 pictures records two members of the group, Sarah Warren and Kyle Voigt, making a 3 a.m. visit to Puliafito’s office on the medical school campus. Voigt, a 37-year-old Iraq War veteran with multiple drug dealing convictions, poses in the dean’s white lab coat. He and Warren, then a 20-year-old from Huntington Beach, are shown holding charred pieces of aluminum foil, a common method for smoking heroin. Puliafito is not shown in the photos.
In an undated photo, one of Puliafito’s office assistants sits in a car with Warren. The assistant is smiling while Warren blows a kiss to the camera. A December 2015 picture shows a 25-year-old nude model who partied with Puliafito’s group on his arm at the medical school holiday party at a downtown ballroom.
Puliafito and his circle took hundreds of pictures and videos, but few appear to have circulated outside the group. Sources allowed The Times to review many of the photos and videos in advance of the report last July on the condition that they not be published. More recently, those sources gave The Times permission to publish some of the videos and photos.
The photos could be important evidence in the USC probe and in an ongoing investigation by the California medical board. The agency has the authority to revoke Puliafito’s license to practice medicine, and investigators can refer him to local authorities for criminal prosecution. The board also could impose fines on USC’s hospital administrators. People questioned recently in the state investigation said an agent expressed interest in photos and videos of the former dean using drugs.
A spokeswoman for the medical board said Thursday that “in the course of any investigation, all relevant evidence is obtained, to include, photos, videos et cetera.”
Taken in 2015 and 2016, the photos reviewed by The Times show Puliafito and his friends during the final year of his tenure as dean and in the months that followed his resignation. The Harvard-educated doctor appears relaxed behind and in front of the lens. In one selfie taken last year, Puliafito grins at the camera while holding a glass pipe containing what appears to be methamphetamine. In an undated video, he films Voigt and another man as they browse smoking pipes at a head shop.
The video also shows an easy banter between the doctor and younger men.
“What do you think about, you gonna go into the smoke shop business?” Puliafito asks Voigt at one point.
“Is it related to the drug business?” he replies.
“Yes, it is,” the doctor answers.
Many of the photos and videos include Warren, who met the then-dean in early 2015 when she was working as prostitute. Warren overdosed in a Pasadena hotel room Puliafito had rented last year. A tip about the overdose sparked the Times investigation.
Others shown in the pictures include a San Fernando Valley businessman who was also paying Warren for sex; a Riverside woman with a lengthy record of prostitution and methamphetamine possession; a heroin addict from the Antelope Valley and a Huntington Beach karaoke deejay convicted repeatedly of drug possession.
A private investigator working on the USC inquiry for Yang’s firm contacted the deejay, Don Stokes, in early August. Stokes, 39, was featured in the Times story describing how Puliafito purchased drugs for him on several occasions. He went to rehab last year and said he no longer uses drugs.
The investigator, Patrick Conley, a retired FBI agent who runs a Westside detective agency, questioned Stokes about his contacts with Puliafito and then asked for photos or videos of the former dean, according to both men. Stokes said he told Conley that he only had images of Puliafito in sex acts and not using drugs, and the investigator replied that he wanted them anyway.
Stokes said Conley offered him money for the photos and encouraged him to name his price.
“What’s the figure you need,” he quoted Conley as saying, “Numbers are not an issue, but if the evidence is out there, we need to accumulate them.”
Conley said he never told Stokes or anyone else in Puliafito’s circle he would pay money for photos or videos.
“I have absolutely not offered anybody any money in any form or fashion for anything,” he said.
Yang said in a statement: “All interviews and related requests for evidence are conducted on a voluntary basis with no offer of compensation. Any behavior to the contrary would not be tolerated.”
Stokes said he declined to hand over the pictures because he felt the request was unseemly. Conley left him four voicemails seeking the photos, including a final one saying he didn’t want to have to “hunt you down,” both men said.
Conley said he did not intend to intimidate Stokes. He said he was trying to wrap up the interview and, if possible, deliver the photos to Yang’s firm.
Stokes said the encounter left him with “a bad aftertaste.” He said a state investigator who interviewed him for the medical board probe of Puliafito also asked him for pictures. The agent was interested only in ones depicting drug use by Puliafito. The investigator declined to comment.
Yang and her investigator declined to say whether they or others at the university had obtained photos from other members of Puliafito’s circle. Warren and her brother, Charles, who also partied with Puliafito, and their parents have hired high-profile lawyer Mark Geragos, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement. Geragos is one of Los Angeles’ most prominent attorneys, representing such clients as singer Chris Brown, Michael Jackson, double-murderer Scott Peterson and actress Winona Ryder.
Geragos declined to comment.
A letter to the campus community in July referenced visual evidence of Puliafito’s drug use. University provost Michael Quick wrote that the administration was moving to strip Puliafito of tenure in light of new and “first-hand information” shown to them that day.
“Today, we were provided access to information of egregious behavior on the part of the former dean concerning substance abuse activities with people who aren’t affiliated with USC,” he wrote, adding, “It is extremely troubling and we need to take serious action.”
USC has not provided details about the evidence, and a spokesman declined to reveal what specific materials the university reviewed.
USC’s efforts to track down photos of Puliafito’s private exploits come as they have removed mentions of him from the university website and social media.
Puliafito did not return calls seeking comment.
USC released a statement Thursday saying it was “disappointed the Los Angeles Times is sensationalizing Carmen Puliafito’s inappropriate behavior by publishing vivid images that have already been described in earlier reporting. USC remains focused on gathering the information it needs to expedite Dr. Puliafito’s tenure dismissal proceedings.”
Experts said USC could have a number of motivations for collecting images of Puliafito and his circle. The university needs to understand the full scope of Puliafito’s activities to assess its potential legal exposure and may be required to share those findings with insurers, said Ofer Lion, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and a nonprofit tax expert.
“They face unknown amounts of liability,” Lion said. “They will need to gather as much information as they can in order to properly assess potential lawsuits.”
Howard Bragman, a longtime Hollywood publicist and crisis communications expert, said gathering and reviewing images is essential for USC as it navigates the scandal.
“If you know what the images show, it’s easier to defend,” Bragman said. “If you see what’s out there, it’s easier to position your argument and prepare for eventualities.”
Bragman, who was an adjunct professor in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and currently represents Steve Sarkisian, the former head coach of USC’s football team, said people visited by a private investigator might be dissuaded from releasing a photo of Puliafito to the public.
“You will think twice before you send it on,” he said.
Times staff writer Sarah Parvini contributed to this report.