In publishing a series of investigative reports on a University of Southern California dean that brought his school reputation and revenue, five LA Times reporters did what the university and Los Angeles Police Department failed to do — publicly acknowledge the dean’s secret double life involving prostitutes and drugs.
Conducted by Harriet Ryan, Matt Hamilton, Paul Pringle, Sarah Parvini and Adam Elmahrek, the Times investigation revealed that Dr. Carmen Puliafito the dean of USC’s medical school partied and used drugs.
Ryan said Puliafito was crucial in helping the University garner resources and funds.
“He was more than just an administrator,” she said. “He was sort of the key person in their strategy to become a nationally known school.”
However, sources from USC told the team that university staff members previously raised concerns over Puliafito’s obsessive drinking, inappropriate comments and short temper and suggested he was unfit to continue as dean.
“One female employee was so taken aback by how he dressed her down that she went to the bathroom and vomited,” Hamilton said. “There were a lot of red flags that USC was aware about, but they continued to keep him on as dean for a second term.”
The Times was tipped off on Puliafito’s somewhat secretive habits in March 2016 and began filing Freedom of Information Act requests the next month. After the state government officials denied public records requests or university staff ignored them, the team turned to less traditional outlets: the Internet and social media.
Hamilton found a drug dealer who knew Puliafito by locating the dean’s Venmo account. He also found accounts on sites known for escort services. By the time the team received some public records, they had already made headway.
Then came the in-person interviews.
Warren eventually spoke to the Times after being persuaded by the Times’ team members and some of her friends. People who knew or said they ingested drugs with Puliafito gave the team photos and videos of him smoking out of a pipe or placing an orange ecstasy tablet on his tongue.
“This guy was so cocky … in the life that he led that he allowed himself to be photographed and videoed doing drugs,” Pringle said. “Eventually, we were able to persuade some people who have copies of those images to give them to us.”
Asked how younger investigative reporters should tackle investigative stories, panelists offered this advice:
- Find someone with more experience in your newsroom to help walk you through the process. “If you just have ambition but you don’t have somebody to help form those ambitions, then it’s going to be almost impossible for you to become an investigative reporter,” Ryan said. “You have to work with people who are better than you.”
- Know your state FOIA laws.
- Become comfortable asking multiple people for the same records. “Sometimes an agency might have similar records so that they can go at it at a different angle,” Hamilton said.
- Escalate your requests as needed. Pringle advised reporters to discuss denied FOIA requests with someone whose public image could be harmed by withholding records.
- Report government attempts to stonewall your research. “Once you hit a wall like that,” Pringle said, “you should do a story on the wall and let people know that these public officials … are engaging in this type of behavior.”