The News Is What Bureaucracies Report

If you can’t base your news on a bureaucratic report, you’re swimming outside the normal news business (because you can’t normally get sued for reporting what a bureaucracy reports).

I’m reading Paul Pringle’s 2022 book (Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels). He criticizes people who won’t speak to him, but when I reached out to Paul, twice, he apparently sent my interview requests to his publicist, where they died. So Paul Pringle is no different in this respect from the people he criticizes. Paul wants his subjects to speak to him, but Paul won’t speak to me.

Paul’s book has stirred controversy, and I’m unaware of any deep interview with Paul following its publication to get his responses to criticism.

I’ve also reached out to a couple of the major characters in this book and they did not respond to me.

Here are some key excerpts from this new book:

* But a key line [in the Pasadena police report] was not redacted—the one listing witnesses to the overdose. Entered there was the name of a single witness: “Puliafito, Carmen Anthony.” His relationship to the victim was described as “friend,” and the rest of the line noted that he was a sixty-five-year-old white male. Finally.

I now had an official record that placed Puliafito at the scene of the overdose. The most important element of Khan’s tip was now confirmed. The pressure on USC and Nikias to tell the truth about the dean was about to become crushing.

* Matters had descended to a level where the government of Pasadena, an affluent city of international repute—home of the Tournament of Roses and the California Institute of Technology—refused to decode for the region’s newspaper of record the bureaucratic shorthand on a publicly available form.

So now, as I had told the mayor it might be, the story was as much about the Pasadena cover-up as it was about Puliafito and USC.

* USC had come to regard the editor and publisher of the Times as someone in service to the university. They reminded me that the broader relationship of USC and the newspaper had changed. A balance of power that existed
between USC and the Times for generations had been subverted—so that it had become tilted in USC’s favor. Numbers-wise, this was no revelation—not for the past ten years or so. As the Times reeled from sharp declines in print circulation, revenues, and the size of its staff, USC had enjoyed a boom decade. The university was erecting more and more buildings as it expanded its campus, while the newspaper could no longer even claim title to its headquarters: Tribune had spun the Times and its other papers into a separate company; it kept the Spring Street landmark in the original company and then sold it. And as layoffs at the Times became as regular as the seasons, USC’s remained one of the largest employers in L.A.

* [Matt] Lait and I agreed we would do this quietly—that is, without telling Maharaj and Duvoisin. We were certain they would not approve of the added reporting firepower, even though editors routinely threw more staffers at stories that had the potential to deliver a significant impact. So the expanded USC team would be kept secret from the top editors of the newspaper, on a story of considerable importance to them and the city. It was beyond extraordinary and a sorrowful sign of the distress the Times had fallen into.

And it was risky. Maharaj and Duvoisin could view our actions as insubordinate, and I had heard of instances in which they apparently punished those they perceived as disloyal, critical of their decisions, or in any way a threat to their positions. Maharaj and Duvoisin ordered a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter in the Sacramento area to relocate almost immediately to L.A. after she raised an ethical concern about their acceptance of a grant from an organization that had a conflict of interest with her reporting. For weeks, the reporter, Paige St. John, was forced to drive 430 miles to L.A. on Sundays and sleep on colleagues’ spare beds and even in her car during the workweek, then drive back home on Friday evenings. And after he took the beating in Los Angeles Magazine, Maharaj
overruled other masthead editors in ordering that the Times’s Pulitzer Prize nomination of the opioid series be submitted as a “staff” entry, rather than as the work of the three reporters who produced it. That meant the reporters’ names would not appear on the prize if the series won (it did not). This was widely seen in the newsroom as a particularly cruel act of retribution; I believed Maharaj suspected the reporters cooperated with the Los Angeles Magazine writer, even though there was no evidence of that.

* None of us had ever imagined that we would have to sneak around in the Times Building and go dark on company email to report a story. It was the type of stealth insurgency against corporate management that we covered in other industries.

* Nikias maintained his silence except for the occasional letters he sent to the Trojan family. In one of them, he announced that the university had hired the former U.S. attorney for the Los Angeles region, Debra Wong Yang, to lead an investigation of the scandal, an inquiry that Yang promised would be separate from the administration.

That was hard to swallow. Yang was a partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a mega-firm with an international presence whose connections to USC were circuit board–like. The firm’s managing partner, Kenneth Doran, was a graduate of the university’s Gould School of Law and served on its board of councilors. Doran and his colleagues at Gibson Dunn were donors to the school. And Yang taught at Gould in the 1990s and later represented USC in several lawsuits. Yang told the Times her investigation would be “independent,” adding, “My job is to take it wherever the facts go.” The USC reporting team, the Trojan family, and L.A. at large never learned where those facts took Yang. Whatever she found remained secret, despite expectations that her report would be made public—and that the whole point of the investigation had seemed to be transparency and disclosure.

* Yang wasn’t the only lawyer with USC ties who played a role in the Puliafito affair; another was Jackie Lacey, the L.A. County district attorney.

* She held her swearing-in ceremony at the Galen Center, USC’s basketball arena. Nikias was among the speakers.
“One dedicated Trojan, Mr. Steve Cooley, is passing on the baton to another dedicated Trojan,” he told the audience, “and I am very proud and honored to be here today.”

Lacey gave it back in her inaugural speech. “It is a privilege to be sworn into office on the University of Southern California campus,” she said. “I thank President Nikias and the leaders of this distinguished university.… USC represents so much to me personally. It has been like the iconic center of some of the most important events of my life.”

Nikias later awarded Lacey an honorary degree on behalf of USC. She keynoted a fundraising gala for the law school and participated in other university events. Now, medical board investigators were asking Lacey’s office to consider bringing criminal charges against Puliafito, including a felony count for providing drugs to Charles Warren when he was underage.

* The evidence presented to Lacey’s office was compelling, but the investigators struck out. During Lacey’s first term, three USC football players were accused of violent crimes, but none was prosecuted. Among the players who walked free was Osa Masina, who later pleaded guilty in a Utah sexual assault case, in which the victim was the same woman he had been accused of attacking in L.A.

Another case Lacey’s prosecutors took a pass on involved a Trojan with much more clout than a football player. Jack Leonard and I published an investigative story that showed thousands of dollars in taxpayer-financed
improvements were made to the home of L.A. County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. We reported that county crews performed the work—all without permits—on the orders of administrators who ultimately reported to Ridley-Thomas, one of the most powerful politicians in L.A. In response to our story, Lacey’s office opened an investigation into whether the work amounted to a misappropriation of public funds.

* Seven years later, a federal grand jury indicted Ridley-Thomas on charges of accepting bribes from a USC social sciences dean in exchange for directing county funds to the school. The bribes were in the form of a USC job and scholarship for Ridley-Thomas’s son. The supervisor denied the charges.

At least Lacey’s office conducted something of a probe, even if halfblinkered, into Ridley-Thomas’s home improvement project. It extended no such effort to Puliafito. A month after the medical board investigators
referred their findings to the office, prosecutors decided not to charge him, stating that the “current state of the case does not establish sufficient evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.” The DA’s office arrived at that conclusion without even speaking to the Warrens, the family told me.

* With Lacey’s team passing on the case, USC did not have to worry about a more thorough criminal investigation of Puliafito than the medical board could do. Nor would it face the daily headlines of a Puliafito trial.
But there were still all those photos and videos of the drug parties Puliafito paid for. The Warrens had shared many of the images with the medical board investigators but kept copies on their phones and computers and a
hard drive. The photos and videos in the family’s possession would be available if they were subpoenaed in any future civil or criminal case. And they would remain a potential source of embarrassment to USC.

* [Mark] Geragos had told the Warrens that their civil claim against USC and Puliafito could be worth $10 million or more. He persuaded them to go into mediation for a quicker payout than would be possible through a lawsuit.
The mediator Geragos agreed to was Dickran Tevrizian, a retired federal judge who was a Trojan through and through. Tevrizian held degrees in finance and law from USC, a USC scholarship fund was named for him, and the university honored him with its prestigious Alumni Merit Award. His wife and three siblings were also Trojans. The Warrens told me they had been unaware of any of Tevrizian’s USC connections until after his selection as the mediator—and then they were told only that he was an alumnus. Even that didn’t sit well with Paul Warren, who asked Geragos how Tevrizian could be an impartial arbiter of the family’s claim against his alma mater. Geragos assured him that Tevrizian was a good choice.

(Tevrizian later insisted to me that he had disclosed his Trojan ties to all the parties in the mediation. When I asked him if he had anything in writing to support that, he replied that he would no longer engage with me.)

Everything about the mediation was secret—the participants, the nature of the claim, and the outcome—so my reporting on it had been limited, including with respect to Tevrizian’s role. But I did learn that USC’s lawyers played hardball with the Warrens, with threats to shame them publicly over their own conduct, which the family saw as a smear in the making. One of Geragos’s associates handled most of the case, and the hoped-for $10 million became a $1.5 million offer from USC. The associate persuaded the Warrens to accept it to avoid an interminable and vicious court battle. Of the $1.5 million, $600,000 went to the Geragos firm, a handsome payday for the lawyers.

In return for their end of the money, the Warrens had to agree in writing to never speak publicly about the issues in the mediation—meaning all their encounters with Puliafito—and to help USC quash any subpoenas that might be issued for testimony or records about the ex-dean. It was the sort of nondisclosure agreement that the #MeToo movement, ignited months earlier by the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, wanted scraped from the legal landscape.

There were two more conditions for the Warrens: The family had to surrender to USC all those photos and videos of Puliafito doing drugs, along with any emails, text messages, or anything on paper about him or the university. And the Warrens had to destroy their copies of the images. If they didn’t, there would be no money. Who were they to reject the advice of a famous lawyer? So the deed was accomplished when the lawyers marshaled Paul, Mary Ann, Sarah, and Charles to a tech shop in downtown L.A., where the photos and videos were deleted from their phones and
computers—a wipe so thorough that they had to create new Apple IDs when it was completed.

Puliafito was part of the mediation agreement. He and his lawyer signed it, as did attorneys for USC—including Yang. She apparently saw the muzzling of the Warrens and the destruction of their evidence of Puliafito’s
drug crimes as part of her charge to conduct an “independent” investigation of the scandal. After I learned of the wiping of the devices, I contacted Yang. She would not speak to me or answer written questions I sent her.
Geragos also refused to be interviewed. Through his attorney, Nikias said he knew nothing about the mediation agreement, even though one of the attorneys who signed it for USC, the university’s general counsel, reported
to him. Lacey said she was unaware that the photos and videos and other material were destroyed. “That should be looked into,” she said. As far as I could determine, it was not.

The Warrens’ devices were wiped in November 2017. That was a month after the death of Dora Yoder’s infant boy, a twenty-five-day-old who had meth in his body. The tragedy brought Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detectives into Puliafito’s life.

* The LAPD opened what would become one of the city’s biggest sexual abuse investigations ever. Before arresting Tyndall and charging him with twenty-nine felonies (he pleaded not guilty), detectives would spend a year interviewing witnesses and alleged victims all over the United States. But there was one person they didn’t even ask to speak to: Max Nikias. As far as I could determine, the LAPD and the district attorney’s office kept the
investigation confined to Tyndall. They showed no interest in learning whether USC administrators had violated any laws in how they responded to the complaints about Tyndall’s abuse of patients. That was in glaring contrast to the broader investigations of the sexual assault cases involving former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and former Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar. In those probes, authorities examined the actions of university administrators, which resulted in criminal charges against the presidents of both schools.

* Audry Nafziger said Tyndall abused her when she was a USC law student in 1990. She went on to work for many years as a sex crimes prosecutor for the DA’s office in neighboring Ventura County. “If you’re not looking, you’re never going to find anything,” Nafziger said of the failure of L.A. investigators to conduct an inquiry into USC administrators. “Why is USC different from Penn State? Why is it different from Michigan State?”

* When he bought the Times, Soon-Shiong hired [Norman] Pearlstine, the former top editor at The Wall Street Journal and Time Inc., to run our newsroom. He’d been in the job for eighteen months when Jack and I walked into his office to discuss a possible conflict of interest involving two largely softball pieces Pearlstine had written about Huawei, the Chinese communications giant U.S. officials suspected was an arm of Beijing. Another Times reporter and I had learned that Pearlstine, before joining the paper, served as a consultant to a Toronto-based company whose subsidiary claimed to do business with Huawei. And a Chinese national whom Pearlstine had hired
for a tech position at the Times, Max Wu, was actually an officer in the Toronto company; he had a byline with Pearlstine on one of the Huawei stories and a credit line on the other. Jack and I believed that, at minimum,
the stories should have included an editor’s note informing the reader of the ties between the Toronto firm and Pearlstine and Wu. But Pearlstine started shouting almost as soon as we asked him about it. He said there was no
conflict. And an editor’s note never appeared.

* Pearlstine had been losing more and more support in the newsroom, including for making only anemic moves to diversify our mostly white staff. He rebuffed calls for his resignation. A fresh sexual harassment scandal shook the paper, forcing the resignation of the man Pearlstine had hired to run the Times’s Food section. With the walls drawing close, Pearlstine’s resolve to block the Ching stories seemed to falter. The piece on Ching’s dabbling in veterinary medicine finally ran, and it triggered an investigation by the L.A. city attorney and then criminal charges. Ching eventually was convicted after pleading no contest. Pearlstine had almost spared him that fate.

Over the ensuing months, allegations of other ethical transgressions at the Times surfaced, including those involving conflicts of interest. There were embarrassing stories about the paper in other publications, and then in our own pages, and that was it for Pearlstine. In December 2020, he announced his retirement and returned, with no fanfare, to New York.

* A year and a half after his firing, [Davan] Maharaj’s tenure at the Times made news again. NPR’s Folkenflik, with some clandestine help from me, reported that Maharaj had received a secret payment of more than $2.5 million from pretronc Tribune after threatening to sue the company for wrongful termination. Folkenflik’s story revealed that Maharaj made a surreptitious recording of [Michael] Ferro saying that Southern California billionaire and philanthropist Eli Broad was part of a “Jewish cabal” that ran L.A. The decision by Tribune and Ferro to pay off Maharaj, as Folkenflik wrote, kept Ferro’s anti-Semitic epithet hidden from the public. Maharaj should have
immediately exposed it, but he instead concealed it ultimately for his financial benefit. Through a spokesman, Ferro denied to NPR that he uttered the slur. Maharaj’s attorney told the outlet his client was not paid to keep anything secret and the settlement reflected his “almost 30 years of exceptional service” to the Times. Apart from a role in a small journalism nonprofit based in Jamaica, Maharaj faded from view in the media world.

[Marc] Duvoisin fared better in the business. He landed an at-large editing job at the Houston Chronicle and later became editor in chief of the Chronicle’s sister paper, the San Antonio Express-News. Nobody at either publication
had reached out to the USC reporting team for a reference on him.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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