Coaches, celebrities indicted in college admissions bribery case
Wealthy Miami Beach businessman Philip Esformes was covering his bases to get his son into the University of Pennsylvania and its exclusive Wharton School.
He first approached Penn’s varsity basketball coach Jerome Allen in May 2013 about placing the son on his short list of recruits so he would be put on a fast track to gain acceptance to the Ivy League school. To make the dream a reality, Esformes plied the coach with bribes — about $300,000 in total, according to Allen’s testimony in a Miami federal court trial.
But Esformes, now standing trial for Medicare fraud, wasn’t taking any chances, court records show. Months later, the healthcare executive reached out to William Rick Singer, the head of a college consulting business at the center of a $25 million bribery and test-cheating investigation that was unveiled this week by federal authorities. Some 33 parents, including a Miami real estate investor, were charged in the college admissions scandal, which ultimately did not implicate Esformes.
In his Medicare fraud trial, court records show that in February 2014 Esformes texted Singer to ask about his son’s chances of getting into Penn with a certain SAT score and whether he would have a better shot if he were applying as a student-athlete. The text messages were filed as evidence Thursday in Esformes’ $1 billion Medicare fraud trial in Miami, just two days after the college admissions scandal broke.
Esformes told Singer that his son, Morris, a senior at Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach, scored 2000 out of 2400 on the three-part SAT exam — but he needed to take the college-entrance test again that March to boost his chances for Penn.
“Very good for starter,” Singer noted.
“2100 is what gets u in all?” Esformes asked.
“As a regular student 2200+,” Singer responded.
Then he added: “Athlete at least 700 across the broad.”
Esformes texted that he would get back to the college consultant based in Newport Beach, California. It’s unclear how Esformes and Singer continued their discussions about the son’s bid to get into Penn, of if they did at all, because the text messages filed in the court record revealed nothing more.
In the end, their interaction became a moot point. Allen, the Penn coach, followed through on his promise to put Esformes’ son on his “recruited basketball player” list in exchange for bribes so that he could be accepted into the prestigious university in the fall of 2015. But by then, Allen had been fired for having string of lousy seasons. And, the son, never made the team. Still, Morris Esformes is expected to graduate with the class of 2019 this spring, according to his father’s defense attorneys.
Allen pleaded guilty to a bribery-related money laundering charge in October and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in Esformes’ healthcare fraud case and testify at his trial, which started in February.
During his testimony in Esformes’ healthcare fraud case last week, Allen talked about how difficult it was to get into Penn academically as a regular student or as an unknown student-athlete. He said it was less challenging for a high school standout with an average academic record hoping to play Division I basketball — especially if the coach designated the player as “recruited.”
“Your chances of getting in are far, far greater,” Allen testified over the past week as a cooperating government witness in the Esformes’ healthcare fraud trial.
When Allen first checked out Esformes’ son at a basketball court in the JW Marriott in downtown Miami in late May 2013, he came away unimpressed, saying he was short and not terribly athletic.
“I didn’t see him as someone I would have recruited at that time,” Allen testified. “I didn’t think he was good.”
But Esformes persuaded Allen with a series of cash bribes and wire transfers to his bank account to lie to Penn’s admissions office about his son’s basketball qualifications so that he could be placed on the coach’s list with a handful of other eligible recruits.
“He was going to give me money if I made sure his son was going to play Division I basketball and get him into the Wharton School,” Allen testified.
Esformes’ defense attorneys tried to portray the relationship between the healthcare executive and basketball coach as friendly, not transactional, to soften the image of their bribery arrangement between 2013 and 2015.
Before trial, Esformes’ lawyer denied any bribery scheme, saying his client’s son was qualified to get into Penn on his own academic and athletic merits. Defense attorney Howard Srebnick told the Miami Herald that Morris Esformes was a standout “A” student and basketball point guard at Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach.
Srebnick said Esformes hired Allen to help him improve his game, “as many parents do when their kids show athletic promise.” He added that Esformes’ son has maintained a nearly 3.6 GPA at Penn, made the Dean’s List and plans to graduate from the Wharton School with the class of 2019.
Three years ago, Esformes was charged with masterminding the nation’s biggest Medicare fraud racket totaling $1 billion and began trial as the sole remaining defendant in mid-February. As part of that, he was charged anew in July in the bribery case. Esformes, 50, was the owner of a chain of skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities who is accused of conspiring with other now-convicted associates of defrauding the taxpayer-funded Medicare program by submitting false claims and paying kickbacks for patient referrals to his network.
Allen was fired as the Penn head basketball coach in 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 and must pay a $202,000 fine and an $18,000 forfeiture judgment to the U.S. government. He faces up to 10 years in prison at his sentencing on April 16.
Allen’s testimony gained more attention this week after federal prosecutors charged dozens of people across the country with paying bribes to get their children into elite universities — including celebrities, wealthy business people and an investor in a controversial Little Haiti redevelopment project.
Among those charged: Robert Zangrillo, the CEO of Miami-based investment firm Dragon Global; Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; and Mark Riddell, the director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Zangrillo was one of 33 parents — including Huffman and Loughlin — accused of cheating on college exams and posing their children as athletic recruits to gain admission at prestigious schools such as USC, Yale and Stanford. Dragon Global is one of the main investors in the controversial Magic City Innovation District project in Little Haiti.
Riddell was charged with taking SAT and ACT exams in the place of students and correcting students’ exams for money. He is alleged to have done this for students from 14 families, including for Huffman’s daughter. Riddell’s employer, the Bradenton-based IMG Academy, said, “Riddell has been suspended indefinitely as we investigate this matter.”
According to a criminal complaint, Zangrillo paid $50,000 to USC Women’s Athletics in 2018 for his daughter Amber Zangrillo to be recruited by the crew team, even though she had never rowed competitively.
Zangrillo made another payment of $200,000 to the Key Worldwide Foundation, a non-profit college prep business whose CEO is William Rick Singer. That group arranged for someone to secretly take classes on behalf of Amber to improve her grade point average.
USC had denied Amber’s college application in 2017.
On her Facebook page, Amber posted on July 2018 that she had started school at USC.
A total of 50 people were charged in what is being called Operation Varsity Blues. Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.
At least nine of the coaches charged worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.