An attorney representing former USC medical school dean Carmen Puliafito acknowledged at a state medical board hearing Wednesday that the physician used hard drugs while employed by the university, but argued that the doctor has been in recovery for months and should be allowed to practice medicine.
The hearing marked the first time Puliafito’s version of events has been aired publicly since The Times detailed his double life of using drugs and partying with criminals, causing upheaval at USC and prompting the medical board to investigate the Harvard-trained ophthalmologist.
Attorney Peter Osinoff also argued that the 67-year-old physician suffers from a mental illness that makes him brilliant and leaves him with “immense energy,” but instills an “ugly side” in Puliafito that drove him to be infatuated with a young prostitute. That woman, Sarah Warren, introduced the doctor to “street drugs” and ultimately caused his downfall, Osinoff said.
Osinoff insisted at the hearing that Puliafito was “addicted” to his former companion “and to a lesser degree the drugs,” but that the former dean has since been able to manage his diagnosed bipolar disorder.
“Compared to [Sarah Warren’s] use of drugs and alcohol, his use was light. She was a hardcore addict. He used drugs so he could be close to her,” Osinoff said.
The medical board alleged that Puliafito “would return to his medical office to see patients within hours of using methamphetamine” and supplied drugs to Warren and her then-minor brother Charles Warren, among others. Puliafito provided Charles Warren with methamphetamine and pipes for smoking the drug when he was only 17, the filing said. Osinoff said Wednesday the doctor never illegally supplied drugs, was never high while seeing patients and has never been the subject of a patient complaint. He stopped using methamphetamine last July, Osinoff said.
The lawyer described Puliafito as a man spellbound by his own manic state and a “fantasy” in which he would rescue Sarah Warren from “a life of drugs and prostitution.”
Blinded by his mania and “oblivious to the consequences,” Puliafito spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Warren, paying for housing, clothing, rehab and other expenses, Osinoff said, even as she stole from him and “drugged him without his consent.”
Her parents also tried to “shake him down” for money under threat of making her available to reporters for interviews and exposing the former dean’s lifestyle, Osinoff alleged at the hearing. Paul Warren, Sarah’s and Charles’ father, denied this in an interview with The Times.
Administrative law judge Jill Schlichtmann ruled that the Warrens were confidential witnesses who could be identified only by their initials in the hearing. However, The Times is naming them in its coverage of the proceeding because they earlier gave the newspaper their accounts in on-the-record interviews.
In February, a lawyer for Puliafito sent The Times a letter saying there was no “evidence that Dr. Puliafito used any drugs of any kind while he was working at the medical school.”
“This is a case about mental illness and its effects upon a very high-functioning person who managed it well, largely without treatment, for 64 years,” Osinoff told Schlichtmann.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Rebecca Smith argued that Puliafito is unfit to practice medicine because of a substance abuse disorder, is a “danger to the public” and engaged in “egregious conduct at the expense of his female companion and her minor brother.”
The first witness Smith called Wednesday, Devon Khan, was reservations supervisor at a Pasadena hotel where Sarah Warren overdosed in Puliafito’s room in March 2016. Khan, who no longer works at the DusitD2 Hotel Constance, described being summoned to the room by a colleague and finding Warren “unconscious … completely unresponsive.” Warren had been placed in a wheelchair by the hotel staff because Puliafito wanted to move her to another room, Khan said.
“I was trying to rouse the young lady,” the witness said. “‘Ma’am, ma’am, can you hear me?’” He said Warren was slumped in the wheelchair “like a rag doll.”
Khan said he found a bag of small metal tanks or cartridges on the floor, a container for a small butane torch and burn marks on the bedding. Later, a security employee opened a safe in the room and discovered a baggie with a white substance inside, Khan said.
He said he told Puliafito that he intended to call paramedics and the physician identified himself as a doctor and tried to dissuade him. “He told me that he didn’t believe it was necessary,” said Khan, who added that Puliafito told him Warren had merely drunk too much alcohol.
On cross-examination, Osinoff asked Khan if Puliafito nevertheless agreed to call 911. “Somewhat reluctantly,” Khan said. “I didn’t ask for permission.”
Khan’s account of the overdose mirrored The Times’ reporting of the incident.
Puliafito was present at the hearing. Also present were Sarah Warren, Charles Warren and their mother, Mary Ann Warren. Sarah Warren and Charles Warren were excused after the attorney representing them cited their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The medical board began looking into Puliafito and suspended his license after The Times last year revealed the dean’s behavior with the Warrens and other younger people who used drugs, a report that kicked off almost a year of scandal at the university. The hearing will determine whether he can keep his medical license.
The Times interviewed several of Puliafito’s much younger associates and reviewed photos and video showing him using drugs.
One showed Puliafito smoking a giant glass pipe outfitted for methamphetamine use while Warren sits next to him and smokes heroin from a piece of foil. In another, Warren can be heard asking Puliafito to prepare for her a “hot rail,” a method of snorting methamphetamine.
“Absolutely,” Puliafito replies. Later, Warren is shown bending over a tray with several lines of white powder.
A source with knowledge of the Pasadena overdose called the office of the USC president and told two people who took the call about Puliafito’s involvement. USC President C.L. Max Nikias later said the employees didn’t pass along the message to superiors because the caller didn’t seem “credible.”
Less than a month after the overdose, Puliafito stepped down as dean. But USC didn’t report him to the medical board, and he remained on the faculty and continued to see patients at USC clinics until The Times published its story. He was then fired and banned from campus.
When the medical board finally learned of the accusations against Puliafito and launched an inquiry, investigators returned with damning allegations that led to the suspension of his license.
The board also alleged Puliafito consumed heroin and methamphetamine at the Keck School of Medicine campus and other locations in 2015 and 2016, according to the accusation.
Puliafito’s successor to the deanship, Rohit Varma, also stepped down as The Times was preparing to publish a story about a sexual harassment allegation against him that resulted in a $135,000 payout to his alleged victim.
Then earlier this month, The Times reported that USC allowed Dr. George Tyndall, a gynecologist at the student health center, to continue practicing on campus despite a record of complaints about him that spanned more than two decades.
The revelation sparked more than a week of turmoil at the university that culminated with Friday’s announcement that Nikias would be stepping down.
Like the Puliafito case, USC at first did not report Tyndall to the state medical board. Instead, the university allowed him to quietly resign with a settlement payout. USC filed a belated report in March and acknowledged the physician should have been reported much earlier.
Tyndall, 71, has denied wrongdoing. In earlier interviews with The Times, he said he dedicated his career to "Trojan women" and provided care that was more thorough than that of many colleagues, but never inappropriate.