Family for life.
Those were the words that caused Jerome Allen to sell out his alma mater, his Penn Quakers basketball program, his players, and ultimately his name.
That was Allen’s own testimony Friday in a federal fraud trial of a Florida healthcare executive. The former Penn head coach and iconic Quakers player, now an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics, testified that he took roughly $300,000 in bribes from a Florida businessman to get the man’s son into Penn using a basketball priority slot.
The news of the bribes, caught on wiretaps during a massive Medicare and Medicaid fraud investigation of the healthcare executive, came out in July. The amount of the bribes to Allen, however, were not public before this testimony.
While you’re processing that bombshell, here’s another: Allen testified that former Quakers assistant Ira Bowman, now at Auburn, had been brought into the scheme after Allen was let go by Penn, and that Bowman had been aware of it even before then. Bowman could not be reached for comment.
Allen testified that as Penn’s head coach, he had knowingly broken NCAA rules to work out the son privately, that he would be fired if Penn knew what he was doing.
“I put my whole career out there,’’ Allen testified, according to Law360.com.
Penn Athletics released this statement to The Inquirer Monday: “We were extremely disappointed to learn that Jerome Allen, former head men’s basketball coach at Penn, accepted payments to recruit a potential student-athlete to Penn and concealed that conduct from the Athletic Department and University administration.
“Until Jerome’s testimony last week, we also were unaware that former assistant men’s basketball coach Ira Bowman had any relevant knowledge of the matter. The University has been cooperating fully with the government and the NCAA so that the matter is appropriately redressed.”
Allen, who was Penn’s head coach from 2010-15, already had pleaded guilty to bribery charges in October. He testified he is facing up to 10 years in prison, but the government had agreed to seek a lighter sentence. One of the prosecutors did not return an email message left Monday morning.
Basically, Allen got caught because the government was going after Philip Esformes for a much bigger scheme, ultimately charging him with filing $450 million worth of false claims to Medicare and Medicaid for services because of bribes to doctors. The Allen payment was just a little subplot.
“I accepted the money to help Morris Esformes get into the school,’’ Allen testified, according to the Miami Herald. “I got his son into Penn. I got his son into Wharton. None of that would have happened without me.”
Allen testified that he had been introduced to the father by a basketball trainer who had suggested he look at the son to bring to Penn’s basketball camp. The father later told Allen it was his son’s dream to go to Penn, that if Allen could make that dream come true, they would be “family for life.”
“The one thing I take seriously is when I extend myself to someone, and if they tell me we’re family for life, I take it seriously,’’ Allen testified. “I took it to mean he was going to make sure I was going to be taken care of as well.”
He was. Allen flew to Miami on multiple occasions at Esformes’ expense, and testified that he would be handed plastic bags with $10,000 or so in cash in the bags. Eventually, he testified, the payments switched to wire transfers, and Allen testified he received about $300,000.
Then, Allen testified, Esformes got what he wanted and communication stopped. It was more complicated than that. He testified that the son had gotten a likely letter from Penn, but before his actual acceptance, Allen was let go as coach after Penn had failed to win 10 games for the third straight season.
According to Law360.com, Allen testified that Bowman, another former Penn star who was staying on the staff after Allen was replaced by Steve Donahue, had been aware of Allen’s arrangement and that Allen suggested a separate account be set up, and that he gave Bowman a debit card for the account.
The son got into the school, Allen testified, the son realized from fall workouts he was going to be cut from the team so he left the program. The money payments then stopped, Allen testified.
“What happened to ‘We’re family for life?’ ‘’ Allen testified, according to Law360.com. “Yes, I’ve lied, but the one thing I can’t take is when we’re doing business and you say you’ve got me and you’ve got my kids, and you don’t honor that. I put my whole career out there.”
It’s hard to overstate how important a basketball figure Allen has been in Philadelphia, especially to players in the city. His efforts put into Penn’s program were real. He once was spotted alone in the locker room, painting it. The same recruiting class that produced this player also produced contributors who turned the program around under Allen’s successor, Steve Donahue, in 2015. The Quakers would not have won last year’s Ivy title without Allen’s recruits. This year’s seniors recruited by Allen remain important parts of the team that recently qualified for this weekend’s Ivy League tournament.
So how did Allen sell out his players? He presumably could have spent energy to get another player, a more talented player, who also could have passed muster with the admissions department if Allen had vouched for him. Players on a team are obviously allowed to expect that they all belong there, that the coach is looking out for their best interests, not offering roster spots for sale. There are no limits on roster size in the Ivy League. How many admission slots each school gets is up to the schools. There are Ivy League academic index standards, so sometimes lesser athletes are accepted to help pull up the overall academic index for a class.
According to the Herald, Allen testified that he lied to Penn’s admissions department about the son’s basketball ability.
“I knew that if it got back to the University of Pennsylvania what I was doing for Morris Esformes, I would be fired,’’ Allen said on the witness stand.