Here's Everything You Need To Know About USC's Many, Many Scandals

The entrance to the Engemann Student Health Center on the campus of the University of Southern California (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

USC has been repeatedly rocked with scandal, after scandal, after scandal this past year and a half — from doctors accused of sexually abusing students to the medical school dean's involvement with a prostitute and hard drugs, the loss of accreditation for a prestigious medical fellowship program, and now a report of severe budget problems at its social work school. Having trouble keeping up? Here's a quick recap:

FACULTY TAKES A STAND

A group of USC faculty who have been critical of the university's handling of the scandals sent a letter to USC leaders seeking more faculty input in university policies and reforms.

The May 8, 2019 letter from the 360-member Concerned Faculty of USC says "strong faculty governance" could have helped avoid scandals over bribes for admissions, the loss of accreditation for a medical school fellowship, and the search for the university's chief academic officer, the provost.

"As we look to the future, we seek to create genuinely open conversations with the administration of USC, along with staff, students and other community members, with a clear sense that faculty are the keepers of the flame that illuminates higher education," the letter says.

The letter was sent to Interim President Wanda Austin and incoming President Carol Folt several hours after faculty at the School of Social Work, once rated among the best in the nation, held a meeting at which they discussed a report in the Los Angeles Times that revealed a budget deficit of as much as $40 million and lowered admissions standards for students.

"The fact that that [school of social work administrators] were proliferating these masters programs with no academic standards that were just to raise money for university," said USC Law Professor Ariela Gross, a Concerned Faculty of USC leader. "That money was coming before educational quality is something faculty have been raising alarms about."

ACCREDITATION REVOKED

USC's medical school and the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center jointly run a renowned fellowship program that trains physicians to become specialists in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

On April 23, 2019, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) revoked the fellowship program's accreditation, effective in June 2020.They notified USC that the university will not be able to appeal this decision.

The council said USC and the County Medical Center "failed to demonstrate substantial compliance" with its accreditation requirements, but did not provide further detail. In an internal memo, USC medical school dean, Dr. Laura Mosqueda, said the decision was based on concerns about "resident safety and wellness processes."

The specifics of those concerns were not disclosed.

Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief healthcare officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said it's rare for a teaching hospital to lose accreditation for a fellowship program. "It's pretty serious," she said.

While she said she doesn't know the details of the council's investigation, she said such action usually happens after certain steps, ranging from a corrective action plan to probation, are taken. If ACGME stripped accreditation from the cardiovascular fellowship without taking those steps first, "it speaks to either the seriousness of the issue, or the fact that the attempts to correct the problems have not been successful."

Cardiovascular care for patients at the medical center is not at risk, Orlowski said, but the withdrawal of accreditation means that USC will cause gaps in staffing that will have to be filled by other doctors.

Other medical training programs at USC and the County Medical Center remain accredited, but the council took the unusual step of placing the institutions as a whole on probation.

The ACGME ruling comes a little over a year after a medical resident in the cardiovascular program alleged that a cardiologist sexually assaulted her and other fellows. In a lawsuit, the resident, Dr. Meena Zareh, said USC and the county failed to properly investigate her complaints. The cardiologist, Dr. Guillermo Andres Cortes, was temporarily stripped of his medical license.

It is unclear whether the assault complaint was among the "resident safety" concerns cited by Dr. Mosqueda in her memo. But the loss of accreditation for the cardiovascular fellowship program is yet another black eye for USC's medical school (more on those below).

Two classes of current fellows in the cardiovascular program will be allowed to continue and graduate in 2020. USC said it hopes to establish a replacement program before the current one ceases next year.


THE PAY-TO-PLAY BRIBERY SCANDAL

On March 12, 2019 the U.S. Justice Department revealed that it had charged four current and former USC athletic officials with corruption charges related to a national college admission bribery scheme.

Prosecutors said the conspiracy was orchestrated by Newport Beach resident William "Rick" Singer through a college admission advising company and a non-profit charity. Singer used decades of experience as an independent college admissions advisor and relationships with college officials and test taking employees nationwide to promise parents guaranteed admission to elite colleges.

Prosecutors charged the following with racketeering conspiracy:

- Donna Heinel, USC senior associate athletic director
- Ali Khosroshahin, former head coach of USC women's soccer
- Laura Janke, former USC assistant coach of women's soccer
- Jovan Vavic, USC water polo coach

On the day of the investigation USC announced it had fired Heinel and Vavic. Lawyers for the four could not be reached for comment. They're scheduled to appear in court on March 25.

Prosecutors alleged that the USC employees worked with Singer to greenlight fabricated sports histories and achievements so that students would be admitted to USC as athletic recruits.

In one instance prosecutors allege that Singer schemed with Las Vegas resident Gamal Abdelaziz to fabricate basketball playing history and awards for his daughter that would be submitted to Heinel in order to admit her to the university as an athletic recruit. Abdelaziz paid Singer's charity $300,000. His daughter was admitted as a recruit and Singer's foundation began sending Heinel monthly $20,000 payments.

Page 89 of federal indictment details involvement of Lisa Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli in a college admission fraud scheme. (US DOJ document)

Singer's list of wealthy clients included business owners and Hollywood actors.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion entrepreneur Mossimo Giannulli allegedly paid Singer's charity $500,000 for Singer to create rowing achievements in order for their two daughters to be accepted into USC. Prosecutors said Singer asked Giannulli to mail $50,000 directly to USC's Heinel.

Unlike USC's other scandals, this one did not appear to show that the university's top administrators knew about wrongdoing and failed to act to stop it. USC made that point in its statement reacting to the college admission investigation.

"USC has not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate fully with the government's investigation. We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university. USC is conducting an internal investigation," USC's media office said in an email.

THE CARMEN PULIAFITO CASE

In July 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported a major scandal that appeared stranger than fiction: Carmen Puliafito, the dean of USC's medical school and a nationally recognized opthamologist, had cavorted with a prostitute and criminals, used hard drugs with them both on and off campus, and tried to cover up a fellow drug user's overdose.

Carmen A. Puliafito (Photo by Tonya Wise/Invision/AP)

One of the most damning accusations was that USC staff knew of Puliafito's behavior. That put a blinding spotlight on USC President Max Nikias. Puliafito was quietly removed as dean but continued to see patients at USC.

The university faced problems with Puliafito's replacement, too. USC had appointed Rohit Varma - also an opthamologist - as medical school dean, but withdrew the appointment after reporters found that Varma had settled a sexual harassment claim by a female researcher in 2003.

In July 2018, the California Medical Board suspended Puliafito's license to practice medicine.

The university's handling of this and accusations that USC's gynecologists abused students over a span of nearly 30 years shook the administration to its core.

THE GEORGE TYNDALL SCANDAL

The Los Angeles Times first reported in May 2018 that women had complained to university staff that during medical appointments campus gynecologist George Tyndall had performed unwanted pelvic exams, had made crude sexual comments, and had taken pictures of them naked.

USC created a telephone hotline to document the allegations. The LAPD announced that detectives had begun to interview 52 alleged victims, some who had called the hotline, as part of a criminal investigation against Tyndall.

"We believe that with only 52 people coming forward at this point in time, that's probably not an accurate representation of the people that saw him and the potential individuals that might have been victims," said LAPD Captain William Hayes. He speculated there could be as many as 10,000 victims, because Tyndall had been a doctor at USC for nearly 30 years.

Tyndall was arrested by the LAPD on June 26, 2019, on 29 felony counts of sexual abuse. Prosecutors charged him with assaulting 16 women during medical appointments between 2009 and 2016.

Tyndall and his lawyers consistently denied that he did anything wrong.

Women who claimed they were Tyndall's victims began to flock to lawyers who helped them file lawsuits alleging the gynecologist sexually assaulted them and that USC was negligent, because it allowed Tyndall to continue seeing patients after women complained. By one count, more than 600 women have filed these kinds of suits.

By August 2018, the mounting allegations, the investigation and a public letter critical of the university signed by hundreds of professors led USC President Nikias to resign. USC's trustees appointed longtime aerospace executive Wanda Austin as interim president and vowed to conduct a national search for a permanent replacement for Nikias with wide input from USC students, faculty and staff.

USC's board of trustees is engaged in the process of picking a new president for the university Some faculty want a reformer to clean house up and down the administrative chain of command, while others want someone who will take a more moderate approach.

On Feb. 12, 2019, USC and plaintiffs' lawyers filed a $215 million settlement agreement in federal court. It includes proposed reforms to USC's student health practices, including the appointment of a women's health advocate and increased pre-hiring background checks of new health hires to find any incidents of sexual harassment or gender-based violence.

The agreement creates a tiered system for payments to victims ranging from $2,500 to $250,000, depending on the severity of the case. But not all of Tyndall's victims will join the class action. Lawyers for some women who sued Tyndall and USC in state court said the available amounts are too low "for the severe abuse that they suffered and the emotional and psychological suffering that they've been dealing with for years and years and years," said Vince Finaldi, a lawyer who's helped dozens of women sue the university and Tyndall.

THE DENNIS KELLY ALLEGATIONS

On Feb. 11, 2019 a third USC doctor became the target of abuse allegations after six men sued USC and Dr. Dennis Kelly, the former campus men's health physician. The plaintiffs allege they were sexually assaulted as students by Kelly at USC's student health center. The men identify as gay and bisexual and claim Kelly targeted them because of their sexual orientation. The suit alleges that Kelly did not explain the reasons for rectal examinations and used inappropriate language when asking the students about their sexual activities.

"Despite receiving repeated complaints regarding Dr. Kelly's misconduct, USC actively and deliberately failed to investigate, discipline, or address Dr. Kelly's sexually abusive and discriminatory behavior and instead, continued to employ Dr. Kelly for years," the suit said.

When asked by the L.A. Times, Kelly - who retired last year - denied the accusations and said his behavior with patients was professional. For its part, USC said it will release information about the allegations as it becomes available.

"We are aware of the lawsuit and are concerned by its allegations. We're working to understand the facts of this matter. We care deeply about our entire Trojan family, including our LGBTQ+ community," a USC spokeswoman said in an email.

The allegations against Kelly and criticism of how USC handled complaints echo in some similar regards accusations against Puliafito and Tyndall.

UPDATES:

Mar 15, 2019: This article was updated to include a federal criminal investigation into an alleged college exam and admissions fraud scheme.

April 26, 2019: This article was updated to include news that USC's medical school and the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center lost accreditation for a cardiovascular fellowship program and were placed on probation by a national oversight council.

May 8, 2019: This article was updated to include a letter from faculty members to USC leadership responding to the scandals and asking for a greater role in reforms.

June 26, 2019: This article was updated to include the arrest of former USC gynecologist George Tyndall.

This article was originally published on Feb.21, 2019.