Medical-School Dean Is Said to Have Led a Secret Life With Illicit Drugs and Prostitutes

July 17, 2017

David Livingston, Getty Images
Carmen Puliafito at a 2014 fund-raising gala in Beverly Hills, Calif., to benefit the U. of Southern California’s urology institute. The former dean of USC’s medical school was described on Monday as a wild partyer, not just a renowned eye surgeon.
By day, the medical dean at the University of Southern California was a prolific fund raiser and renowned eye surgeon who brought prestige and talent to the Keck School of Medicine.

By night, the Harvard-trained doctor led a secret life of partying with drug users and prostitutes, one of whom overdosed in his presence three weeks before he resigned as dean, according to a bombshell report on Monday in the Los Angeles Times.

The bombshell report shed light on what might have contributed to Carmen A. Puliafito’s decision to step down from his $1.1-million-a-year job in March 2016, in the middle of a semester. At the time, he said he wanted to pursue a biotech job.

He remained on the faculty as a professor of ophthalmology and health management, and continued to treat patients at the USC Roski Eye Institute.

His university status as of Monday, however, remained unclear. A USC spokesman, Eddie North-Hager, said Dr. Puliafito, 66, had been on sabbatical since stepping down as dean.

Contacted by phone, a receptionist at the USC eye institute said on Monday that Dr. Puliafito had taken a leave of absence within the past few days. His online listing had been updated to say he was no longer seeing patients.

Messages sent to Dr. Puliafito’s university email address bounced, and he did not respond to an inquiry via Facebook.

Video footage and photographs obtained by the newspaper showed Dr. Puliafito allegedly taking pills and smoking from glass pipes with a number of people, some of whom had criminal records, in 2015 and 2016.

The portrait the article painted of him stood in jarring contrast to the public persona of a man who was a highly skilled eye surgeon who regularly attended star-studded USC fund raisers with the Hollywood elite.

In one videotaped scene the dean, wearing a tuxedo, shows an orange pill on his tongue. "Thought I’d take an Ecstasy before the ball," he tells the camera, then swallows the pill. Ecstasy is a psychoactive drug also known as MDMA or Molly.

According to the Times, Dr. Puliafito raised more than $1 billion for USC. He also oversaw hundreds of medical students, thousands of professors and clinicians, and research grants totaling more than $200 million.

The Times reported that the 21-year-old woman who overdosed last year in a hotel room in Pasadena, Calif., Sarah Warren, met Dr. Puliafito in 2015, when she was working as a prostitute, and that they had become frequent companions.

She told the Times that she had offered Dr. Puliafito methamphetamine, which he accepted. After her overdose, the police found the drug in the hotel room where the two of them were reportedly staying together, but no one was arrested, the newspaper reported.

On Sabbatical

Asked whether Dr. Puliafito remained on USC’s payroll, university officials released a statement on Monday saying they were not legally permitted to discuss personnel matters. "However, we can confirm that following Carmen Puliafito’s resignation as dean of the medical school, in March 2016, he was on sabbatical from his faculty position," said the statement, which was emailed to The Chronicle.

The university is taking steps to review his status in patient care, it added.

"If the assertions reported in the July 17 Los Angeles Times story are true, we hope that Carmen receives care and treatment that will lead him to a full recovery," it said.

On social media, questions swirled about how, given the photos, videos, and other evidence that was apparently floating around, USC officials could have been unaware of what their dean was allegedly up to after hours.

When Dr. Puliafito resigned as dean, he told faculty, staff, and students that he wanted to "return to academic ophthalmology and pursue some identified opportunities in health care."

He worked for a time at a New York pharmaceutical company that announced, in December, that a drug it had been developing had failed in clinical trials.

Dr. Puliafito, who is married with three grown children, has a medical degree from Harvard University and an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He moved to USC from the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, where he directed the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and led its department of ophthalmology.

During his time there, the eye institute rose to national prominence, but an optometrist filed a lawsuit accusing him of assault and battery, according to the Times. He denied wrongdoing, and the university settled with the optometrist, it reported.

Before that, he was the founding director of the New England Eye Center and was chair of the ophthalmology department at Tufts University.

Calls and emails sent on Monday to more than a dozen of Dr. Puliafito’s medical-school colleagues at USC were not answered.

Paul S. Rosenbloom, a professor of computer science and president of the university’s faculty senate, replied in an email on Monday that he had read the Times article "with concern." He said, however, that he didn’t know enough yet to feel comfortable commenting further.

Meanwhile, as recently as this month, Dr. Puliafito continued to earn praise from his peers. The USC Roski Eye Institute named him to its Retina Hall of Fame.

The Medical Board of California listed him as having an active license and no disciplinary actions, but a spokeswoman said she was not legally allowed to say whether it had opened an investigation.

A review of public records in the states where he has practiced showed no malpractice lawsuits or disciplinary actions against him.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.