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USC had disciplined former medical school dean linked to drug use

USC president C. L. Max Nikias speaks to the press on April 26th, 2012.
USC president C. L. Max Nikias speaks to the press on April 26th, 2012.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

USC President C.L. Max Nikias revealed Friday that the university had received various complaints and had disciplined Dr. Carmen Puliafito during his tenure as dean of the medical school.

In a letter, Nikias detailed steps that the university had taken to address complaints around Piliafito’s personal and professional conduct. Puliafito received “disciplinary action and professional development coaching,” according to the letter.

The university has been slow to respond publicly about a Los Angeles Times investigation that revealed Puliafito secretly partied, used illicit drugs and hung out with criminals. Nikias acknowledges frustrations around the university’s response.

In 2015, Puliafito was put “on notice for being disengaged from his leadership duties,” the letter said. “On March 11, 2016, two USC employees notified Provost [Michael] Quick that Dr. Puliafito seemed further removed from his duties and expressed concerns about his behavior.”

After consulting with Nikias, Quick confronted Puliafito, according to the letter.  Puliafito “chose to resign his position on March 24, 2016 and was placed on sabbatical leave.”

Puliafito publicly said he wanted to explore other opportunities in biotech. He kept his faculty position and continued to accept new patients, according to the Times.

Earlier that month, Puliafito’s girlfriend overdosed while they were partying at a Pasadena hotel, according to the Times’ investigation. Puliafito tells 911 operators he thought she only had alcohol. But the Times reported she took other substances.

Following the Times’ investigation published July 17 2017, the university suspended Puliafito “from all USC activities related to his faculty position (including patient care), and initiated dismissal proceedings to strip him of his tenure.”

Nikias said that “no university leader was aware of any illegal or illicit activities.”

Nikias confirmed that two receptionists in his office received a call in March 2016 from a blocked phone number with concerns about Puliafito. Neither receptionist found the claims or the caller credible, “so the information was not elevated to a senior administrator.”

The university has hired law firm Gibson Dunn to “get to the bottom of these issues and make recommendations.”