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Tie emerges between Penn bribery case and national college admissions scandal

Eight months before the bribery case broke, Penn faced its own scandal: Its former basketball coach accepted cash, a recruiting trip to Miami, and rides on a private jet to get a businessman's son into the school.

Penn Head Coach Jerome Allen, left, and Assistant Coach Ira Bowman during their game against Princeton on March 10, 2015.
Penn Head Coach Jerome Allen, left, and Assistant Coach Ira Bowman during their game against Princeton on March 10, 2015.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Eight months before news broke of the largest admissions bribery case in U.S. history, the University of Pennsylvania was facing its own bombshell enrollment scandal.

Its former head basketball coach, Jerome Allen, was charged with accepting cash, a recruiting trip to Miami, and rides on a private jet from a wealthy Miami businessman seeking to get his son into Penn. That payoff was uncovered by prosecutors during a larger probe of alleged Medicare fraud by the businessman, Philip Esformes.

The Allen bribe was not part of the national FBI admissions probe, but evidence that emerged this week during Esformes’ trial in Florida suggested a tie between the two cases: A document showed Esformes had also been seeking admissions advice from Rick Singer, the college consultant at the heart of the national case unveiled this week.

Federal authorities say Singer orchestrated the national scheme that included cheating on college admissions tests and bribing athletic coaches and that resulted in the indictment of 33 wealthy parents, including two television stars.

The document introduced in court this week showed that Esformes and Singer were communicating about the SAT scores of the businessman’s son in 2013 and 2014. It’s not clear whether Esformes was paying Singer to facilitate cheating on the test for his son.

The revelation that Allen took bribes from Esformes shook Penn athletics and admissions, prompting the Ivy League university to hire outside counsel to review the incident.

It only got worse last week as Allen — who pleaded guilty in October to bribery — testified at Esformes’ trial. Allen, a former Penn player and assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, admitted he took $300,000 in bribes.

"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.”

This week, federal authorities detailed similar allegations involving coaches and parents at colleges including Georgetown, Yale, and Stanford. A prosecutor announcing the charges at a news conference in Boston earlier this week said the probe, which has been underway for more than a year, was triggered by a tip from a separate investigation — not the Allen case.

On Wednesday at Esformes’ criminal trial in Miami, prosecutors produced a string of text messages between the businessman and Singer.

Though fragmentary and terse — and often preludes to phone conversations — the messages, obtained by The Inquirer, clearly show Esformes was involved with Singer at least by October 2013. The focus of their exchanges is the SAT testing for Esformes’ son.

In the exchanges, Esformes tells Singer that the son, Morris Esformes, had scored about 2,000 out of a maximum score of 2,400 on a SAT exam. The father asks whether such a score was sufficient for his son to get into an elite university. Singer’s advice: The score was “very good for starter,” but would fall short of the needed score for applicants who are not athletes.

In another exchange, Esformes asks about an upcoming aptitude test in Arizona — far from the family’s hometown in Miami. The text exchange did not elaborate. According to Singer’s indictment, he would arrange for students to take college-entrance exams at locations some distance from their homes, at sites where he had influence and coconspirators could improve their results after the fact.

The exchanges do not reveal if the younger Esformes, did in fact take a test in Arizona.

There is no reference to Penn or Allen in the exchanges. The indictment of Esformes makes no mention of Singer, just as the indictment of Singer makes no mention of any links to Penn.

The father of one Penn student was charged in the larger scandal after allegedly paying to get another son enrolled at a different college, The Inquirer has confirmed.

Penn declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding that student’s enrollment. Neither the student nor his parents returned calls or emails for comment.

“We don’t comment on individual student records,” said Stephen J. MacCarthy, vice president of university communications.

The university also declined to publicly disclose what, if any, steps it had taken in response to the widespread charges announced this week at other schools.

The university said it did take action in response to the Allen case. Penn hired an outside consultant “to review and strengthen our processes for the recruitment of student athletes,” Eric Furda, dean of admissions, wrote in an email this week.

And in light of the new charges involving other schools, Furda said Penn would see what else it could do to improve its “recruitment and evaluation processes.”

He did not reply to requests for an interview to provide details or to give the name of the consultant.

Furda wrote that even the best procedures possible are no substitute for basic trust between admissions and athletics.

“We will not be naive to think that all people will act in the manner in which we hope they should or underestimate how persuasive some people can be in trying to influence a process,” he wrote. “These cases may also hopefully demonstrate to others that there are no shortcuts and that the truth will eventually come to light.”

The alleged payment of bribes for college admission is not without precedent in Philadelphia. In the 1970s, two prominent Philadelphia Democrats — House Speaker Herbert Fineman and State Sen. Henry Cianfrani — went to prison following federal investigations into such payoffs from parents.

Fineman was charged with accepting $56,000 to obtain places for students at the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Jefferson Medical College, and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of obstruction of justice on the grounds that he had persuaded school officials to destroy evidence.

Cianfrani was convicted of racketeering, mail fraud, and bribery for selling graduate school places, among other things. He got a five-year prison term.

Allen, a former NBA player once drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, hasn’t been sentenced yet.

At Esformes’ trial, Allen testified that he was introduced to Esformes by a basketball trainer who had suggested he consider the son for Penn’s basketball camp. The father later told Allen it was his son’s dream to go to Penn and that if Allen could make that dream come true, they would be "family for life. "

“I took it to mean he was going to make sure I was going to be taken care of as well,” Allen testified.

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. Eventually, he testified, the payments switched to wire transfers, and Allen testified he received about $300,000.

Before Esformes’ son was formally accepted, Allen was replaced as head coach after Penn failed to win 10 games for the third straight season. That’s when, Allen testified, former Penn assistant coach Ira Bowman was brought into the scheme.

Esformes’ son enrolled at Penn in 2015 — and remains enrolled, according to the school’s student directory.

He never played for the basketball team.

Staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith and Mike Jensen contributed to this article.

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