Carmen A. Puliafito. USC photo

The USC scandal over a disgraced ex-medical school dean may not have been such a surprise to the school’s leaders after all.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias has acknowledged that university officials received complaints and took disciplinary actions against a former medical school dean who has been linked to substance abuse and associating with known criminals before the situation became publicly known.

The acknowledgement came in a late Friday letter to the campus community in response to concerns about Dr. Carmen Puliafito, 66, who was dean of the Keck School of Medicine for nearly a decade, even as he struggled with personal issues, before resigning midway through the Spring 2016 semester.

“Over the course of his nearly 10 years as dean, we received various complaints about Dr. Puliafito’s behavior, which were addressed through university personnel procedures. This included disciplinary action and professional development coaching.”

The actions noted in Nikias’ letter included:

— November 2015: being put on notice for being disengaged from his leadership duties;

— Fall 2016: an unsubstantiated tip about an incident in a Pasadena hotel where a young woman overdosed and was rushed to a hospital and survived. Puliafito told university officials the woman was the daughter of a friend and he  merely accompanied her to the hospital. Later news reports said he told a dispatcher the 21-year-old woman was his girlfriend;

— March 11, 2016: reports from two USC employees that Puliafito seemed even further removed from his duties and expressed concerns about his behavior.

Nikias noted that “no university leader was aware of any illegal or illicit activities which would have led to a review of his clinical responsibilities.”

Following the March 11, 2016 complaints, Nikias said Puliafito, a noted eye surgeon, consulted USC Provost Michael Quick but decided to step down and was placed on sabbatical leave.

But Puliafito continued to teach, see patients and represent the university at various functions until a July 17 Los Angeles Times report detailed allegations of drug abuse and questionable friendships.

Nikias said USC administrators got a list of questions about Puliafito from the Times and a copy of a 911 recording from the hotel overdose in March, but “determined that there were no existing patient care complaints and no known clinical issues.”

However, the campus investigation into Puliafito’s behavior was re-opened shortly after the Times report became public and hired former federal prosecutor Debra Wong Yang to lead the effort.

“After being presented with firsthand evidence of Dr. Puliafito’s egregious behavior later that week, the university immediately suspended him from all USC activities related to his faculty position (including patient care) and initiated dismissal proceedings to strip him of his tenure.”

The Times report sparked widespread criticism and concern about USC’s response, but Nikias maintains the situation was handled appropriately.

“In my view,” the letter states, “we acted when we felt we had the information necessary to act, and then we acted decisively.”

But a Times report on the university’s latest response says its reporters  “made repeated inquiries about Puliafito” over the past 15 months, in some cases describing information about the dean and the overdose.

“USC’s leaders never responded to the inquiries,” the Times reported. “Numerous phone calls were not returned, emails went unanswered and a letter seeking an interview with Nikias to discuss Puliafito was returned to the Times by courier, unopened.”

–City News Service

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