Two Los Angeles Times reporters and USC alumni who helped break the story of the secret life of the former dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine, Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito, returned to campus on Tuesday to discuss their investigative work.
The reporters, Matt Hamilton and Sarah Parvini, spoke at a Journalism Director's Forum just hours after their Times colleagues published new findings that USC administrators knew about the former dean's behavior up to five years ago.
The Times initially reported on allegations that on March 4, 2016, a 21-year-old prostitute had overdosed while taking drugs with Puliafito in a Pasadena hotel room. The newspaper's story, published in July, said that police had found methamphetamine in the room. Puliafito resigned as dean less than three weeks later, saying he was leaving to pursue work in the biotech industry.
Since then, USC has hired the law firm Gibson Dunn to investigate the allegations. The California Medical Board suspended Puliafito's medical license in September.
In the forum moderated by USC Professor Geoffrey Cowan, Hamilton and Parvini said that the first big lead to the identity of the 21-year-old woman came through public records and an obscure email associated with Puliafito.
"It didn't seem right," Parvini said. The email had the f-word in it and was spelled incorrectly. "It was not in character with a dean of a medical school," Hamilton said jokingly. The reporters reverse-searched it and was directed to a "sugar daddy" website with a young blond woman's photo posted. Through court records the Times team was able to piece together a profile of her.
The reporters found out that Sarah Warren, the woman who overdosed in the Pasadena hotel room, was sent to a rehabilitation facility in Orange County. They went to the facility, and because phones were considered contraband, Warren would sneak into the bathroom and do interviews "in hushed tones" over the phone, Hamilton said.
"I think it was part of her recovery," Parvini said about the interviews. "She viewed the dean as a destructive figure and telling the world about him would unshackle her."
As the investigation grew, Hamilton said, social media was an advantageous tool. Puliafito had a Venmo account—a digital way to transfer money between friends—and the "followers" of the accounts are public. "Through cross-referencing his account followers with [Warren's] we found the drug dealer." Parvini later went to the jail where the dealer was being held and got the jailhouse interview.
Throughout the investigation, the Times reporters were unable to get direct responses from USC to the allegations. Parvini said she and Hamilton were "kicked out of President Nikias' office in the nicest way" four months before the story first broke.
"We've emailed, gone to [administrator's] offices, sent letters, knocked on doors—we were stonewalled," Parvini said. "It merited a story of its own."
When Cowen, the moderator, asked what Parvini would like to ask the USC administration, she responded, "What did USC know and when did it know it?"
The university put out statements reacting to the situation from when the story first broke in July. On July 21, USC Provost Michael Quick wrote a letter addressing the Times' allegations.
"Today, we are 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. This was the first time we saw such information first-hand. It is extremely troubling and we need to take serious action," he said.
Five days later, USC President Max Nikias sent a letter expressing his responsibility for transparency. "It is my responsibility to ensure the trust and well-being of our Trojan Family, and I take that responsibility very seriously," he said.
Two days after that, Nikias released another statement reading in part, "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."
When asked about any concerns of releasing such a damning report as alumni, Parvini said that it hardly crossed her mind. "I did not particularly feel like 'Oh no, USC won't like me anymore,'" she said. "I would also hope that the journalism school that trained us would see the value in holding the institute accountable."
Annenberg Media asked the USC administration for comment about the Times' latest story, but no statement was released in time for publication.