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California suspends medical license of former USC dean tied to drug use

By Paul Pringle and Adam Elmahrek | Los Angeles Times (TNS)

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LOS ANGELES — The Medical Board of California has suspended the license of former University of Southern California medical school dean Carmen Puliafito pending a final decision on his fitness to practice medicine.

The medical board opened an inquiry into Puliafito after a Los Angeles Times investigation found that he regularly used methamphetamine and other drugs, including while serving as dean of the Keck School of Medicine.

In an order issued by an administrative law judge, the state attorney general’s office, acting on behalf of the medical board, and Puliafito agreed to the suspension as an interim measure that will remain in force until the panel completes its probe and issues a decision.

After the Times published its July 17 report on Puliafito’s drug use, USC barred him from seeing patients at university clinics and began the process to fire him from the staff of the Keck School of Medicine. Puliafito was dean of the school from 2007 until last year.

An attorney for Puliafito, Peter Osinoff, said Monday that his client has not practiced medicine since the story was published.

“He hasn’t treated patients at all,” Osinoff said. “He has been in treatment.”

The attorney declined to specify the type of treatment. A spokeswoman for the medical board said she could not provide other details about the inquiry.

Julie Fellmeth, a former overseer of the medical board who is a staff attorney for the University of San Diego Center for Public Interest Law, said the panel’s investigation could take some time.

If the board decides to punish Puliafito, it could revoke his license or reactivate it with certain restrictions, such as a requirement that he undergo drug and alcohol testing. Former and current USC administrators have said Keck employees complained about his drinking and that he was treated for alcoholism.

Puliafito, who earned more than $1 million a year as head of Keck, could face consequences harsher than a licensing penalty. The agency conducting the investigation for the medical board has the authority to refer any evidence it finds of criminal conduct to local prosecutors.

Saying he decided to pursue a job with a private firm, Puliafito, 66, abruptly resigned as dean in March 2016. He did not mention that, three weeks earlier, he was at the scene of a drug overdose of a young woman in a Pasadena hotel room registered to him.

A tip about the overdose prompted the Times to investigate Puliafito. The newspaper found that, for at least 14 months during his tenure as dean, he led a second life of drug use and partying with a circle of much-younger addicts and criminals.

That behavior continued in the months after he stepped down as dean. Throughout that period, USC did not respond to numerous Times inquiries about the circumstances of his resignation, including one last March about his presence at the overdose.

USC allowed Puliafito to remain on the Keck staff and continue seeing patients. He also represented the school at medical-related events.

After the story ran, a number of current and former Keck faculty and staff members said they had complained for years about Puliafito’s abusive behavior and heavy drinking.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias has acknowledged that school administrators received complaints about Puliafito’s behavior. In a July 28 letter to the university community, Nikias said Puliafito resigned as dean after USC Provost Michael Quick confronted him about two complaints.

At the time, Puliafito was a key witness in a high-stakes legal battle between USC and the University of California over an Alzheimer’s research program. USC poached the leader of the program from UC San Diego, and he brought with him hundreds of millions in grant funding

UC’s lawsuit against USC seeks at least $185 million in damages. The suit is ongoing.

Puliafito and members of his drug-abusing group often captured their exploits in photos and videos. The newspaper reviewed scores of the images, including one showing Puliafito smoking what appeared to be methamphetamine and another in which he places an Ecstasy pill in his mouth. The Times later published three of the images.

The woman who overdosed at the Hotel Constance, Sarah Warren, now 22, said Puliafito was her constant companion in a relationship dominated by drug use. After she overdosed, paramedics took her to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. Warren said she woke up six hours later, and Puliafito drove her back to the Constance, where they resumed using drugs.

As part of his suspension, Puliafito is prohibited from prescribing medications. Warren and her younger brother, Charles, told the Times that Puliafito prescribed inhalers for them to soothe lungs made raw from smoking methamphetamine and marijuana.

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California suspends medical license of former USC dean tied to drug use