USC officials announced they have begun the process of firing Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, dean of the university’s medical school and a Pasadena resident who allegedly lived in two separate worlds: one in which he was an accomplished physician and nine-figure fundraiser making more than a million dollars a year, the other populated by criminals in which drinking was heavy and illegal drug use was de rigueur.
Puliafito’s latter lifestyle was recently the subject of a multi-part investigative report by the Los Angeles Times, which appears to be ongoing.
The doctor’s alleged alternative lifestyle was publicly exposed in the story’s first installment on July 17, when the Times reported that Puliafito back in March 2016 — three weeks prior to his resignation as dean of the USC Medical School — was in a hotel not far from his home on tony South Los Robles Avenue with a prostitute who had overdosed on gamma hydroxyl butyric acid, also known as GHB, or the date rape drug.
“We have initiated the required process to terminate Dr. Puliafito’s employment at USC and strip him of his faculty tenure,” wrote Michael W. Quick, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “As we undergo this process, he is under immediate suspension from the university and is barred from our campuses and any association with USC, including attending or participating in university events.”
Puliafito could not be reached for comment on this story.
According to the Times’ reporting and police and city documents, a Pasadena officer was called to the Constance Hotel, located at 928 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, on March 6, 2016.
Upon arrival, Officer A. Garcia discovered 21-year-old Sarah Warren, who had overdosed on GHB. Warren told a reporter with the Times that she had been partying with Puliafito for two days. At the Constance, police also found a gram of methamphetamine, also known as crank or crystal meth, at the scene, but it was not in either person’s possession.
Neither Puliafito nor Warren was arrested. Three weeks after that incident, Puliafito resigned from his post at USC.
Officer Garcia did not write a report on the incident until the following June. However, the officer properly collected and preserved evidence at the scene, according to Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez.
“The officer filled out a property report that night,” Sanchez said in a statement issued after the Times story broke. “And he preserved the evidence and documented the confiscation of methamphetamine in a timely manner. The officer also conducted and recorded an interview of Dr. Puliafito, correctly preserving his statement and ultimately writing a report on June 8, 2016.” Nevertheless, “We do recognize that the incident report was not written in a timely manner in conjunction with the property report,” Sanchez wrote.
Heading off claims of a possible cover-up, the city released a timeline of the incident and audio recordings of the encounter between Officer Garcia and Puliafito.
“We want to assure the public that our officer responded and investigated the incident. The recordings clearly show no one, including Dr. Puliafito, attempted to influence the officer or have him dismiss the incident in any way,” said City Manager Steve Mermell, also in a prepared statement.
According to those documents, Garcia arrived at the hospital 25 minutes after receiving the call for help from the hospital at 5:09 p.m. He was headed to the hotel, but was delayed briefly when he conducted a traffic stop, according to the timeline and then rerouted to Huntington Hospital because Warren had already been taken there.
Garcia arrived at the hospital at 5:34 p.m. and spoke with Warren, Puliafito, hospital staff and paramedics. Thirty-two minutes later he headed back to the Hotel Constance where he collected the evidence, according to the timeline.
Six hours after the overdose, Puliafito showed up at Huntington Hospital, left with Warren and the “pair went back to the hotel and got another room and continued the party,” Warren told the Times.
GHB is commonly used in sexual assault crimes and leaves the victim weak, sometimes unable to move and confused very quickly. In many cases, victims suffer memory loss.
Warren has not claimed she was raped in her encounter with Puliafito. In many overdose cases, good Samaritans who attempt to assist the victim are not subject to arrest.
According to Sanchez, while Pasadena police officers do frequently make arrests for small amounts of drugs, in this case they could not prove who was in possession of the crystal meth.
“Had officers arrived at a drug party where possession and consumption of illegal narcotics was clearly visible, or if this had been a fatal overdose, the law enforcement response would have been very different,” Sanchez said.
The arrest sent shockwaves throughout USC, where Puliafito was considered a superstar fundraiser. To the average student or professor, Puliafito was perhaps best known as a Harvard graduate and a renowned eye surgeon who had dedicated his life to helping others. The respected ophthalmologist earned his medical degree from Harvard University and an MBA from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. Puliafito served as director of the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and chairman of the department of ophthalmology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine before coming to USC in 2007.
He currently serves as vice chair of the boards of Keck Hospital of USC in Boyle Heights and the USC Norris Cancer Hospital, also in Los Angeles. In addition, he is a member of the board of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the House Ear Institute. He served on the Huntington Hospital board from 2008 to 2014.
In 2014, his Rebels with a Cause fundraising program raised $9 million for USC Medical School. That event was attended by Pharrell, Barry Manilow and Anna Kendrick, who starred in “Up in the Air” with George Clooney.
But others saw Puliafito’s alleged dark side, according to the Times.
In his letter to the USC community, Quick claimed that this was the first time campus officials had received firsthand information regarding Puliafito’s activities with drugs and prostitutes.
However, some campus administrators have long been complaining about Puliafito’s behavior to both Quick and USC President C.L Max Nikias. According to the Times, students and co-workers had complained to campus officials about Puliafito for years.
In those complaints, people said Puliafito regularly yelled at other administrators, and some of his co-workers complained about his heavy drinking at public events. They worried that he would be involved in an accident. Others claimed he would regularly berate them publicly. Despite those complaints, Puliafito was rehired in 2012 and given a $1 million salary.
In videos and photos allegedly obtained by the Times, which have been written about but not published, Puliafito is allegedly seen smoking methamphetamine from a glass pipe while seated next to a woman doing heroin at a drug-fueled party.
Although he is a local resident who served at an influential school, Puliafito mostly steered clear of local politics. He gave $2,500 to Congressman Adam Schiff in three separate contributions back in 2008 and 2010.
In 2013, while he was a member of the board at Huntington Hospital, the city entered into a contract for nursing training worth $49,999, according to the Pasadena city manager.
“He never received any money from the city, or had an individual contract with us,” Mermell said.