The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A reporter accused his bosses of burying a scandal. They say he’s lying.

(Richard Vogel/AP)
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In reporter Paul Pringle’s vivid retelling, his blockbuster exposé of a campus scandal was thwarted at every turn by law enforcement and university officials. But the biggest obstacle, he contends, were the editors at his own newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.

Pringle’s new book, “Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels,” recounts his pursuit of a story about Carmen Puliafito, a former dean of the University of Southern California’s medical school. The highly regarded eye surgeon had a secret life as a drug abuser who associated with addicts and criminals.

The book, which alleges that top editors at the Times tried to slow-roll and suppress the story for months to protect the university, has been greeted with enthusiastic write-ups. A reviewer at the New York Times lauded it as “a master class in investigative journalism.” Another — in the Los Angeles Times, no less — compared Pringle’s book to famous tales of journalistic heroism such as “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight.”

Pringle’s former editors have their own review: It’s a pack of lies.

“The entire premise is false,” said Marc Duvoisin, who oversaw Pringle’s original story in 2017 as the Times’s managing editor, in an interview.

The Times’s former editor and publisher, Davan Maharaj, told The Washington Post the book is “largely a work of fantasy. … Much of it takes place in his own imagination.” A third editor who worked on the story, Matthew Doig, published a 3,500-word rebuttal of the book online, complete with scans of his handwritten edit notes, to counter Pringle’s “half-truths and bad-faith misrepresentations.”

Rather than kneecapping Pringle, the editors contend, their caution averted what could have been a disastrous libel suit against the Times. They say the story’s long gestation ultimately led to reporting breakthroughs that enriched and expanded Pringle’s initial drafts of the story.

Pringle’s publisher — Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers — says it stands by his account.

The Times published Pringle’s story in July 2017, about nine months after he handed in his first draft. The article alleged that Puliafito, a practicing doctor and a major fundraiser at USC, had smoked methamphetamine, associated with prostitutes and committed other misdeeds during his tenure at the medical school, before he abruptly stepped down in 2016.

The story was hailed as a journalistic coup, winning accolades and setting the stage for Puliafito’s downfall — as well as the eventual resignation of USC’s president, C.L. Max Nikias, who said at the time he regretted his accomplishments “have been overshadowed by recent events.”

A state medical board stripped Puliafito’s medical license in 2018 for taking illicit drugs. His attorney, Peter Osinoff, told The Post that Puliafito was never charged with drug-related crimes, that his behavior at USC was the result of an undiagnosed mental condition, and that he has been sober for several years.

The article also shook loose a tip that led to another major story: the exposure of a USC gynecologist who allegedly had been sexually abusing his patients for more than two decades. Pringle and two other reporters won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for their investigation of George Tyndall and the university’s coverup of his behavior. Those stories led USC to pay $1.1 billion to settle victims’ claims. As of May, Tyndall has pleaded not guilty to 35 felony counts.

But behind the scenes, Pringle writes in “Bad City,” top editors tried to prevent his reporting on Puliafito from being published. He alleges that Maharaj, the Times’s then-editor and publisher, tried to kill the story to protect a friendship with Nikias and to preserve the paper’s financial relationship with the university, though he acknowledges at one critical juncture that Maharaj told him he “wasn’t closing the door” to more reporting.

There’s no question it was a slog getting the Puliafito story published. It took 15 months from the time Pringle got the first tip about the doctor before the Times reported a word about him. Pringle handed in his first draft in late October of 2016; the draft underwent still more reporting, new drafts, edits and rewrites, and several legal reviews over the following nine months.

Pringle presents this as evidence of bad faith by Maharaj, Duvoisin and other editors. He says it took a “secret” team of four reporters — working in defiance of top editors and at risk of their jobs — to continue work on the story and rescue it from oblivion.

It’s a dramatic account — one that Duvoisin, Maharaj and Doig dispute.

Duvoisin said in an interview that the “secret” team of reporters wasn’t much of a secret. “Everyone knew,” he said, because then-Metro editor Shelby Grad had told top editors about it. (Grad said in an interview he kept the team’s work secret for about “a week or two” while the reporters gathered new information, before telling Duvoisin.)

Contrary to Pringle, they say the long march to publication was a result of the need for more facts, more details, more corroboration of the allegations. “This was a battle over journalistic standards,” Duvoisin told The Post. “I was just not prepared to buckle on mine.”

The former Times editors shared two drafts of the story with The Post to bolster their case that it grew stronger with each round of editing. A draft from February 2017, for example, doesn’t name or identify a key figure in the story — a “girlfriend” of Puliafito’s who allegedly overdosed in a hotel room with him. Pringle subsequently tracked the woman down and interviewed her. The reporting team also later added descriptions of videos and photos in which she and the dean are seen using drugs.

These critical details were included in a version of the article that was written by early April. “The new reporting is tremendous,” Duvoisin wrote to Grad on April 6. But to Pringle’s irritation, Duvoisin and Doig asked for more reporting, including about two figures who subsequently added eyewitness corroboration.

As for the story’s long ramp-up, Maharaj said that Pringle’s editors “were merely trying to get him to provide the necessary evidence for a sensitive story.” Duvoisin said the Times’s legal counsel advised him that publishing earlier versions of the story could subject the paper to a costly defamation suit.

But perhaps the most contentious claim in the book is Pringle’s overarching thesis: that Maharaj and his inner circle were resistant to the USC story because of Maharaj’s relationship with Nikias, the university president, and because the university was an important civic player and the Times’s advertiser.

At one point in early 2017, Pringle describes his startled reaction when Grad told him over the phone that Duvoisin had vetoed Pringle’s idea of going to Nikias’s home and asking for comment, a fundamental method of reporting. “I smell newsroom corruption!” Pringle erupted. “Newsroom corruption!”

The Times, he writes, was financially entangled with USC through the university’s sponsorship of the paper’s annual book festival. He also asserts that Maharaj had been a candidate for “a high-ranking position” at the school during his tenure as the Times’s editor.

Not so, Maharaj says. “I never pursued a job at USC. I was never offered a job at USC, and I had no interest in a job at USC,” he said, adding that his association with Nikias was little more than cordial and professional. As for the book festival, Maharaj said it was “a money loser or, at best, struggled to break even. Does Pringle have evidence to the contrary?”

Pringle’s own work for the Times, meanwhile, may contradict the book’s claim that “Maharaj and his enablers had surrendered” to USC at the time he was reporting of the story. Before pursuing Puliafito, his investigative projects for the newspaper included a number of hard-hitting pieces about the university. He reported on a sweetheart lease deal between the school’s athletic department and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission in 2012, and on questionable practices by the school’s athletic director in 2015 — all of it during Maharaj’s tenure as editor.

“I never said I was prohibited from covering USC,” Pringle told The Post. But stories about the university were “held to a much different standard” than other topics, and subjected to delays and intense review. “I’ve written many stories that never went through this kind of torture,” he said.

To be sure, there were buckets of bad blood at the Times during the period described in “Bad City.” Under the ownership of Tribune Publishing of Chicago, which later changed its name to Tronc Inc., the Times underwent years of management turmoil and staff cuts, leaving its newsroom bruised and suspicious. Maharaj was a deeply unpopular editor and the target of much of the internal loathing. In a damning story published in 2016, Los Angeles magazine faulted him for “feckless and sometimes mean-spirited editorial leadership.”

Pringle, who acknowledges being an anonymous source for that story, cites it as evidence of Maharaj’s misfeasance on the USC story. But it reads another way, too: that Maharaj may have been extra cautious about all big investigative projects and treated the USC story no differently.

Nevertheless, Pringle writes that he took extraordinary measures against his own newspaper as his frustration mounted. He discussed taking his byline off the story before publication as a protest, and said he was so mistrustful of his editors that he sought his own attorney. As the story faced its final delays, he wrote an anonymous letter on Times letterhead to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong urging him to buy the newspaper and replace its management. (Soon-Shiong did so in 2018, though there is no indication the letter influenced him.)

Pringle then lodged an ethics complaint against Maharaj and Duvoisin with the company’s human-resources department, asserting that the editor’s alleged USC connections were a conflict of interest. The complaint in June 2017, he and others at the Times say, triggered an internal investigation and a stampede among newsroom employees to pour out their grievances about the editors.

A month after the Times published the Puliafito story, Tronc fired Maharaj, Duvoisin, Doig and others in what the paper vaguely described as a “shake-up.” Pringle, who still works at the Times, said in an interview that their removal was a “vindication” of his complaint.

But it could also be read as a rejection of it: The H.R. investigation specifically cleared the editors of any conflict in their handling of the USC-Puliafito story. (Maharaj is now an independent writer and editor in Southern California, Duvoisin is the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, and Doig is the investigations editor at USA Today.)

There was also something else. In the month between publication of the Puliafito investigation and the editors’ dismissal, the Maharaj-led Times published 15 news stories following up on its initial story, including several assessments of USC’s role in the scandal. Ten of these stories were published on the front page.

If Maharaj and Duvoisin had ever been protective of the university, their reluctance had plainly disappeared.

This story has been updated to clarify Grad’s statement about the “secret” team of reporters.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a February 2017 draft of the story about Carmen Puliafito did not mention a woman who allegedly overdosed in a hotel room with him. The draft began with an account of the woman’s overdose but did not identify her, as subsequent drafts did. The article also incorrectly described Shelby Grad as Paul Pringle’s direct supervisor at the time Grad informed higher editors that a team of reporters was assisting Pringle. As Metro editor, Grad oversaw Pringle’s direct supervisor at that time. The article has been corrected.

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