Jerome Allen, a former head basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania who is now with the Boston Celtics, caught a fast break Monday when he received a probationary sentence for accepting more than $300,000 in bribes from a wealthy Miami Beach businessman to get his son into the Ivy League school.
Allen, who pleaded guilty in October 2018 to a bribery-related money-laundering charge, received the benefit of the doubt because he testified as a government witness against healthcare executive Philip Esformes at his $1 billion Medicare fraud trial in Miami.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams gave Allen a sentence of four years’ probation, including six months of house arrest along with 600 hours of community service, and ordered him to pay a $202,000 fine and an $18,000 forfeiture judgment to the U.S. government for the bribes he took from Esformes to secure a spot for his son at the University of Pennsylvania.
“If there is any lesson here, you can’t pay your way in and you shouldn’t be able to pay your way out,” Williams said. “There is a debt owed — it’s more than just a reputational cost to you.”
Williams said Allen’s misconduct affected the “whole college system,” including applicants dazzled by the “allure of fame and money.”
“It wasn’t just the reputation of Jerome Allen,” she said. “It was the reputation of college sports and college admissions.”
The judge asked the 47-year-old Allen to explain why, after such a remarkable career as a basketball player and coach, he accepted bribes from Esformes.
“This [was] a self-created storm,” Allen said. “I had an opportunity to say no and I didn’t.”
Allen’s testimony, though unrelated to the main healthcare fraud case against Esformes, was critical to key guilty verdicts reached by a Miami federal jury in April. While the 51-year-old Esformes was acquitted by the federal jury of healthcare fraud, he was convicted of 20 counts of paying bribes and kickbacks, money laundering and obstruction of justice to generate thousands of patients for his chain of Miami-Dade nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami, Esformes is awaiting sentencing.
At Monday’s sentencing, Williams gave him the probationary sentence after Justice Department prosecutors Elizabeth Young and Drew Bradylyons recommended a 45 percent reduction in Allen’s sentence because of his “substantial assistance” in their case against Esformes. They recommended a prison term of four months.
“Mr. Allen gave an advantage to a college applicant who already had every advantage in the world,” Young told the judge.
Allen’s defense, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., sought probation, arguing that the former Penn basketball star and coach was immediately cooperative when FBI agents first approached him in January 2017 and proceeded to assist Justice Department lawyers in making their case against Esformes. Sullivan, in court papers and before the judge, highlighted that Allen grew up in an impoverished home by a single mother in Philadelphia and was able to overcome such hardship because of his basketball talents and commitment to his community, family and players.
At Monday’s sentencing, Allen spoke at length about how he took the money from Esformes because he needed it to shore up his shaky finances, and how the subsequent scandal of being convicted of a crime has made him a better person.
“I’m thankful for this exposure,” he told the judge, explaining how he now talks with youths in juvenile detention centers and elsewhere about his misconduct to help them deal with their personal problems. He credited God for “expanding” his “platform” to reach more of them.
After the sentencing hearing, Allen left the courtroom with his wife, a few friends and his lawyer.
“We’re delighted he got probation,” Sullivan said. “He’s going to make the most of it.”
In March, Allen testified at Esformes’ trial that he paid him bribes in cash and later through wire transfers so his son, Morris, could qualify as a “recruited” basketball player to help him gain acceptance to Penn and its exclusive Wharton School of Business. Allen said he placed the son on a priority list of five high school basketball recruits at the expense of other worthy candidates to ensure his acceptance into Penn, though the Hebrew Academy graduate wasn’t good enough to make the team.
“I accepted the money to help Morris Esformes get into the school,” Allen testified during the father’s trial. “I got his son into Penn; I got his son into Wharton. None of that would have happened without me.”
Allen said he lied to the prestigious university about the son’s qualifications and put him on that list because he had been bribed by Esformes during a series of trips to Miami in 2013. He testified that the father gave him $10,000 in cash each time, the money tucked into a brown envelope stuffed inside a plastic bag, during their meetings in the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach.
“I lied to the school’s admissions office,” Allen told federal prosecutor Allan Medina during trial. “I knew that if it got back to the University of Pennsylvania what I was doing for Morris Esformes, I would be fired.”
In total, Esformes paid Allen about $85,000 in cash bribes and an additional $220,000 in wire transfers into the coach’s bank account between 2013 and 2015. His plea agreement, however, was based upon a single $18,000 bribery payment in December 2015, including transferring $11,000 of that amount to his wife
Allen, who once played at Penn and as a journeyman guard in the NBA, was convicted of accepting bribes, luxury hotel stays, jet travel and limo transportation from Esformes.
Allen was fired as the Penn head basketball coach in March 2015 after a series of losing seasons and was hired as an assistant by the Boston Celtics. He served a two-week suspension from the team for his conviction on the bribery-related charges.
Esformes, the healthcare executive, was accused of paying the coach so that Allen would designate his son as a “recruited basketball player” to support his application to Penn in 2014. Esformes came to know Allen through a basketball trainer, Michael Penberthy, who was coaching the executive’s son as a teenager. Penberthy had played basketball with Allen in a European league.
Esformes arranged for a limousine to pick up the coach at the swank Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and bring him to the JW Marriott Marquis in downtown Miami to watch his son play to assess his basketball skills in March 2013. Esformes also arranged for the limo to bring the coach to his home on North Bay Road in Miami Beach, where he has a regulation basketball court behind a second home that he owns next door.
During his testimony at Esformes’ trial, Allen said that even though he was not impressed with the son’s caliber of play, the coach fell for Esformes’ pitch that he would take care of the coach if he helped ensure his son could play basketball at Penn and get into its Wharton School. “He said to me, ‘we would be family for life,’ ‘’ Allen testified, pointing out that it was Esformes who decided on how much to pay him.
Esformes picked up Allen’s series of tabs at the Fontainebleau Hotel totaling thousands of dollars, according to evidence presented in court. Esformes also paid $19,549.56 for a jet to fly him, his son and the coach from Philadelphia to Miami in March 2015.
Esformes’ son entered Penn that fall but did not make the varsity basketball team.