“Disappearing the Whistleblower”: An Excerpt From ‘Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels’

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In Paul Pringle’s new nonfiction thriller Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels, he takes readers behind the scenes of his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into one of Los Angeles’ biggest scandals. It all began with a drug overdose at one of the city’s hotels, which was seemingly connected to Dr. Carmen Puliafito, who ran USC’s medical school, making him one of the city’s more prominent academic figures (and a regular on the glitzy fundraising circuit, often seen rubbing elbows with celebrities and Hollywood executives). Pringle eventually discovered that the victim, Sarah Warren, was one of several young people with whom the doctor was using (and supplying) recreational drugs — the resulting exposés in the Los Angeles Times sent shockwaves through the city, and were the first of many USC-adjacent scandals he would help uncover (and that’s not counting the now-infamous admissions scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues). 

His book details the breathtaking twists involved in reporting out these many stories, but also lays bare the cover-ups and scandals present at his own newspaper under the management of former publisher Davan Maharaj and managing editor Marc Duvoisin. Duvoisin is pushing back on the narrative laid out in the book and the below excerpt, claiming that Pringle misrepresented the goings-on leading up to the eventual publication of the article. Pringle issued a statement on Twitter re-affirming his version of events and the fact-checking and line-by-line legal review his publishers, Celadon, conducted. 

More from The Hollywood Reporter

Here, in an exclusive excerpt, Pringle details some of the behavior he was met with as he attempted to publish his very first article on the topic.  

A blockbuster.

That’s what the Puliafito story had become by the last week of March in 2017. Sarah Warren held nothing back in her interviews with me. She recounted in granular detail her twenty-one months of drugging with Puliafito and of trading her body for the narcotics he provided to her. The photos and videos were a visual documentation of her story. More corroboration came from the interviews with Sarah’s parents and the eavesdropping mission at Bluegold. I found Don Stokes through Mary Ann, whom he had contacted to check on Sarah’s well-being. Stokes also went on the record about Puliafito. And so did Charles Warren. Charles’s statement that he was a minor when Puliafito first gave him drugs appeared to be the most damaging allegation for the dean and USC.

Harriet rewrote the draft to include the new material. Grad edited it and sent it to Duvoisin. I had added a couple of lines from my interviews with medical ethicists who commented on Puliafito’s bad behavior. Two of them happened to say during the interviews that the Times had an obligation to disclose the information we had about Puliafito as soon as possible because he was still treating patients. They were right. I couldn’t tell them of my concern that the story might sit unpublished for weeks or months under Maharaj and Duvoisin, if they ran it at all.

I was also mindful that the Warrens were still dealing with Puliafito and that they were worried that Kyle Voigt might cause them trouble when he got out of jail. And I kept worrying that another media outlet would beat us on the story.

So I sent this email to Duvoisin on April 6, 2017:

Marc—

The ethicists I interviewed made the valid point that, because Puliafito is still treating patients, we have a responsibility to share our findings with the public as soon as possible. So I hope we can avoid any further delays in publishing this important and shocking story.

There are other reasons. I have earned the trust of the Warren family, beginning with Sarah’s parents, and they see publication of the story as the end of their two-year nightmare with Puliafito.

Lately, Puliafito has been calling the Warrens late at night, warning them not to speak to me. They are worried he could go off the rails. In the past, he has made threats of violence.

The drug dealer in the story, Kyle Voigt, posted bail a few days ago (Puliafito probably paid for the bond), and is on the loose. The family considers him a threat as well.

I filed the original story more than five months ago. If it had run within any reasonable length of time, the deeper findings in the new story—and likely much more—would have been published by now in the form of follow-ups. I would have heard from the Warrens after the first story landed, and Puliafito would have been out of business in short order.

Also, it’s either a miracle of luck or just a sad commentary on the state of our competition that no other news outlet has reported at least a piece of the story, considering the number of cages we’ve rattled.

Duvoisin replied about two and a half hours later:

Paul:

The new and much-improved story was given to me a few days ago. I read it last night, will it [sic] again tonight, and will follow up with any questions.

Best, Marc

And from that point on, Duvoisin went back into delay-and-dilute mode. He effusively complimented our work (which we had learned did not necessarily mean anything in terms of publication) and returned the copy to Grad peppered with his questions and suggestions. We addressed every issue he raised quickly and thoroughly, and Grad sent the draft back to him. And then days passed with no word for the reporters from Duvoisin, although Grad had dealt with a few more questions from him and told us the story was close to the “final lawyering” stage, the review by Glasser that typically was the last major step before publication. I wasn’t convinced of that, and I told Glasser that I feared the story would remain buried for months like the one that was killed. If that happened, I said, I would complain formally to Tribune’s corporate office—specifically, the general counsel and HR—and highlight the concerns I laid out in my email to Duvoisin. I said this to Glasser knowing that he would inform Duvoisin and Maharaj of my intentions, as he should. Glasser didn’t tell me he would do that, but he didn’t disappoint.

The result was this email from Duvoisin:

Paul:

After receiving a copy of the story last week, I read and returned it to Shelby. He gave me a new version, and I returned it to him over the weekend with some questions.

Last night, he delivered to me some supporting materials I had asked to see.

The story is vastly improved with all the new reporting. I am very excited about publishing it. I have briefed Davan, and he is very excited.

No one is ignoring the story or trying to keep it from being published. But it is a complicated story, with a large quantity of new material, and it needs close scrutiny and careful editing.

I’m willing to commit the effort but first I need a reciprocal commitment from you. Drop by at your convenience, and I’ll explain what it is.

Marc

I wanted to believe that he and Maharaj were excited about publishing the story, but the taunting line about it requiring “close scrutiny and careful editing”—which story wouldn’t?—read like Duvoisin was laying the ground for something I and the other re- porters would not like. Worse was his stating that his commitment to the story was conditional, that it depended on whether he received some unspecified reciprocation from me. I couldn’t believe he would put something like that in writing. Duvoisin’s commitment to publishing a story of significant importance to our readers should be based solely on the soundness of the journalism.

I walked into his office as soon as he was free that day. Once the door was closed, he all but shouted at me, and I learned what he expected in return for committing himself to the story: my promise to never take any ethical complaints to HR. He said he respected me a great deal, but that I had violated some sort of trust by threatening to go to HR about a newsroom matter.

“The newsroom handles its own problems,” Duvoisin said, his owlish face blanched with anger. “We do not involve HR.”

I told him it wasn’t smart to pressure employees not to report ethical concerns to HR, which company policy required us to do. Duvoisin was unmoved. He brought up the demand I’d made for legal representation separate from Maharaj and him after they killed the original story. In doing that, Duvoisin said, I had created a “toxic relationship” between me and them.

Long ago, I had become used to Duvoisin’s passive-aggressive behavior, his way of using hollow praise to set you up for a negative experience. But I had never seen him like this—his voice on the edge of a scream as he slapped his desk and jabbed his fingers and denounced me as a traitor of sorts. I wanted to give it back to him at full volume; I didn’t because I believed that would only imperil the story further. He had summoned me in expectation of a trade-off: essentially my silence in exchange for his promise not to put the brakes to the story. So I told him I did not intend to complain to HR. That appeared to placate him, and the meeting ended.

And then Duvoisin took the story away from Grad and gave it to the paper’s newly hired investigations editor, Matt Doig. Duvoisin was restarting the editing process from scratch. I and the other reporters protested, noting that Grad had been shepherding the story since Lait had left, that he knew the material inside and out, and that the story had already been edited four or five times. Duvoisin replied that Grad was “too busy” to handle the story, which was news to Grad. It seemed evident that this was Duvoisin’s way of punishing me for raising the ethical concerns. And if that meant our readers would be denied timely publication of the story, and if it meant Puliafito and his enablers at USC could carry on without public exposure for more weeks and months, that appeared to be okay with Duvoisin.

In the midst of the fight over the story, and with the knowledge and support of a few colleagues, I mailed a letter on Times stationery to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, expressing the hope that he would become the next owner of the newspaper—that is, Ferro and tronc had to be run out of L.A. if the Times were to survive.

Soon-Shiong was a billionaire physician on the strength of his advances in cancer-treating drugs. He had been interested in buying the Times in the past and controlled the second-largest number of shares in tronc stock after Ferro. The year before, Ferro had invited him to invest in the company to fend off a takeover by the Gannett newspaper chain. But the relationship between the two men soured after Soon-Shiong took exception to Ferro’s lavish spending of shareholder money, including on his private jet. Ferro had recently maneuvered to have Soon-Shiong kicked off the company’s board of directors.

The letter I sent was unsigned—I was certain tronc would fire anyone associated with such a gambit—but I wrote that its sentiments reflected those of the vast majority of the newsroom staff, which I and others believed to be true. Those sentiments included a lack of faith in Maharaj.

I had no way of knowing if the letter had reached Soon-Shiong personally or if he had received similar missives and pleadings from inside the Times. Meanwhile, another effort to save the paper was unfolding: a covert campaign to organize the first-ever labor union in the newsroom. It was launched by three staffers in their twenties—graphics reporter Jon Schleuss, data journalist Anthony Pesce, and business writer Natalie Kitroeff. They then brought me into their core group because I had organized a newsroom union at the start of my career.

Much like the USC reporting team in the first weeks, the leaders of the union drive proceeded in secret because of fears they would face retaliation if their efforts became known to the Times bosses and tronc executives.

It was apparent that Maharaj and Duvoisin hired Doig because of the hits they took in the Los Angeles Magazine piece. To Maharaj and Duvoisin, the problem with the number and pace of Times investigations wasn’t them but the staff, and Doig seemed to approach his role as someone brought in to whip us into shape. In my first meeting with him, he told me the USC piece was “a good story but not a great story.” What? I asked him why, in his view, it fell short, and he said it was because Puliafito wasn’t an elected official. That threw me, and I suggested to him it was even worse—and more newsworthy—for the dean of a prominent medical school to be using and trafficking in dangerous drugs than for a politician, especially when the dean was performing delicate eye surgeries between meth binges. Doig assured me I was wrong.

Our relationship went downhill from there, and his dealings with the reporting team overall became strained with his first reedit of the story. It was actually a rewrite more than an edit, and he would do many more. Normally, edits are done in close collaboration with the writers, but that wasn’t Doig’s method, at least not on the USC story. He behaved more like an enforcer than a colleague—again, someone whose principal task was to correct deficiencies among the reporters. He was quick to lash out when we disagreed with him; he snapped at me to “knock it off” when I offered the opinion that his rewrite of the first paragraphs of the story diminished its scope. And while assessing the quality of writing is inherently a subjective exercise, and there is always more than one way to artfully craft any story, we found Doig’s work on the USC piece to fall below the Times’s standards for publication. We complained in writing to Duvoisin about that as well as Doig’s uncollaborative behavior. Duvoisin ignored the complaints but did not propose that Doig’s re-rendering of the story was fit for publication.

The more we exhorted him to restore the draft to acceptable form and get it into the paper, the more Duvoisin engaged in his signature form of insincerity: He assured us that he and Doig were committed to publishing the story, but he did little or nothing to advance it week after week. Instead, he emailed us questions on occasion. Most of them could have been asked and answered within minutes or hours of when the first draft was filed back in late March. Others had been answered in material that Doig cut from the copy. None posed a fundamental challenge to any of our reporting. Duvoisin returned to his robotic line that the story had to undergo a “careful edit” and “legal review,” which was like noting that it would need a headline.

We reminded him repeatedly that Puliafito was still treating and operating on patients and remained a threat to the Warren family. Duvoisin responded with silence. And by injecting Doig into the edit, and through his own tactics, Duvoisin did a favor for USC, deliberately or not, because the resulting delays guaranteed the story did not run during the Times Festival of Books, which the paper staged on the university campus, or during May commencement, which featured Will Ferrell as the main speaker. The Nikias administration would not have wanted those events tarnished by our findings about the former Keck dean. Tommy Trojan, my insider source, told me that word had circulated among Nikias’s lieutenants that an embarrassing story might be coming, but not until after the end of the school year. How anyone at USC could know that was beyond me. It did not come from the reporters. I had to wonder if someone on the masthead was leaking information about the story.

The calendar bedeviled us as the edit, or this perversion of an edit, devolved into daily combat as we tried to inch the story toward publication. It was easy for us to forget that in a healthy newsroom, the situation would’ve been the opposite, with the reporters and editors working collegially to get the best possible story into print as soon as possible. But so much of that had become a quaint memory at the Times—nostalgia. All we could hope for is that the story would be published someday and in a state that would not mortify us. Our world was upside down.

Not once during those months of edits did Duvoisin meet with us to brainstorm ways to make the story stronger, to heighten its impact and importance—to look beyond Puliafito’s conduct for evidence that his superiors, including Nikias, knew about his behavior and covered it up. That was what editors typically do and what Duvoisin had done on other stories. This was another break from the norm.

And from the time Duvoisin turned it over to Doig, not a single change had been made to the copy that we believed improved it in a significant way. Substantive deletions imposed on the draft benefited Puliafito, Nikias, and USC. First, the section on Puliafito’s success in poaching grant-funded researchers from other schools and USC’s dogfight with UC San Diego over the Alzheimer’s lab—the potential motive for the Nikias administration to protect Puliafito—was cut in half. Next, the paragraphs on Hazel and Willy, which showed that Puliafito’s relationship with Sarah Warren pointed to a longer- term penchant for associating with young criminals, were excised in full.

Then Duvoisin deleted the passage about the unnamed whistleblower—Devon Khan. Gone was the fact that Khan called Nikias’s office to report that Puliafito had been at the scene of the overdose. Just like that, Duvoisin let Nikias off the hook: As far as the reader would know, the call had never happened. It was telling that Duvoisin made the deletion without following the newsroom editing protocol of marking it with strikethroughs so that the reporters would see it and perhaps question it. He just disappeared the whistleblower.

The reporters decided immediately that this was something we would refuse to accept, no matter the consequences. We demanded a meeting with Duvoisin and Doig to raise our objections. And if we didn’t prevail at the meeting, if the whistleblower’s call was not restored, we were prepared to withhold our bylines from the story in protest, which none of us had done before. Pulling our bylines would signify to our colleagues in the newsroom and our peers in the news business, in addition to media-savvy readers, that the reporters did not approve of the published story.

The meeting took place in Duvoisin’s office the following day, and it became contentious almost before we could take our seats. Adam, the rookie on the reporting team, with less than a year at the paper, looked Duvoisin in the eye and said, “Cutting the whistleblower is unethical.”

Duvoisin glared at him, but Adam did not flinch. The level expressions of Harriet and Sarah and Matt likewise offered Duvoisin no refuge. The managing editor was boxed in. Doig couldn’t help him. From the start of his involvement in the edits, Doig had said the whistleblower was vital to the story. He retreated from that position only after Duvoisin’s deletion.

And next, Duvoisin changed the rules. He said Khan had to be removed from the story because he was a single anonymous source. I was dumbfounded. The Times had a written policy about such sources, and my use of Khan landed squarely within it: He had a legitimate need to remain anonymous (he would be fired if identified); his information was firsthand; he had proved truthful on other, related matters; and nothing else in the reporting had cast doubt on his reliability. I had lost count of the number of times I interviewed him, going over his story again and again, and he never veered from even the smallest detail of the events and actions he recalled. And whenever I had documentation to check his information against—such as the Pasadena police and city attorney records, as well as the 911 recording—it supported him 100 percent. In his flailing attempts to defend eliminating the whistleblower, Duvoisin pointed out that the documentation did not include a phone record. I said I would get it. But what cut through the back-and-forth about the whistleblower and sourcing were comments by Duvoisin that suggested we ease up on Nikias—because the story, without the whistleblower, was already damaging enough for him.

“As it is, Max Nikias is going to have a bad day,” Duvoisin said. “It will be the worst day of Max Nikias’s life.”

He seemed to be pleading for leniency for the president of a powerful institution who may have covered up wrongdoing that posed a threat to the public.

Harriet stood from her chair and gave Duvoisin a lacerating look. “What you just said is very disturbing,” she told him.

She spoke for all of us. The meeting was over. As we left his office, we advised Duvoisin that we would explore our “options,” the implication being that we were considering a complaint to the corporate office. He said nothing.

We regrouped in Grad’s office and returned to the discussion of withholding our bylines from the story, presuming it never would be published. Grad implored us not to pull our names, because that would give Duvoisin and Maharaj an excuse, however dishonest, not to run the story. We saw Grad’s point.

The next day, Duvoisin ordered Harriet and Adam to his office and more or less disciplined them for raising the ethical issue about the whistleblower, saying they were “out of line.” But Duvoisin must have taken to heart the implicit threat of a corporate complaint be- cause he restored the whistleblower the day after that. He offered the laughable explanation that he had now realized how central Khan was to the story. It so happened that I had secured from Khan the phone record showing his six-minute call to Nikias’s office. But that seemed to no longer be a priority for Duvoisin.

Summer was approaching. We had sent Grad the draft of the story in the second week of spring. The Warrens were on the verge of giving up on the story. They were considering hiring a lawyer to take a complaint to USC about Puliafito, who still hadn’t been exposed in the pages of the Times. He could be back in their lives at any moment. He already was in touch about paying some of Sarah’s lingering bills from her crash-and-burn months with him. What if he started bothering her again?

I’d hoped the Warrens would not get an attorney until after the story ran. Lawyers frequently counseled their clients to not talk to reporters. But I couldn’t fault the Warrens if they retained an attorney and cut me off; they had been more than patient. And since I could not share with them any of the internal newsroom conflicts, they could not fathom what was taking so long. All I could do was appeal to them for more time.

Excerpted from Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels by Paul Pringle. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted with permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.

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