The seemingly never-ending story of the biggest scandal in Penn basketball history has had yet another chapter added to it on Tuesday night.
As part of a round of pre-Christmas pardons, 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump has commuted the sentence of Philip Esformes, who was incarcerated for a Medicare fraud scheme and played a central role in the Penn men's basketball bribery scandal that occurred in 2015.
Esformes was sentenced to 20 years in prison in September 2019 and was ordered to pay $44 million to the Medicare program and the United States government. Esformes managed more than 24 health care facilities that paid bribes to medical professionals to direct their patients to the Florida facilities that he owned. This venture raised $1.3 billion in Medicaid proceeds, in what the U.S. Department of Justice called "one of the largest single health care bribery" cases in U.S. history.
As a witness in Esformes' trial, former Penn basketball coach Jerome Allen testified that Esformes paid him a $300,000 bribe in 2015 to ensure that his son, a 2019 Wharton graduate, would be ensured admission to Penn as a basketball recruit. Esformes' son never appeared on a Penn basketball roster despite being an official member of Allen's final recruiting class before his firing. According to prosecutors, the bribe money came from the Medicare and Medicaid revenues.
Allen, who is now a coach for the Boston Celtics, plead guilty to one felony count of money laundering. While he avoided jail time, he was sentenced to four years of probation, 600 hours of community service, and a fine of $202,000 in addition to an $18,000 forfeiture judgment to the U.S. government.
As a result of the scandal, the NCAA issued Penn Athletics a two-year probation, a $5,000 fine, a three-week ban on men's basketball recruiting communications, and a reduction of its number of recruiting days by seven, but spared it a postseason ban. Allen received a 15-year show-cause penalty, the longest ever handed down to a head coach.
While Esformes' imprisonment was commuted, the remaining elements of his sentence remain intact and the status of his underlying criminal conviction. The White House press release stated that several former attorneys general as well as other notable legal figures filed in support of challenging Esformes' conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct relating to the violation of attorney-client privilege.
It also stated that Esformes, 52, "has been devoted to prayer and repentance and is in declining health."
According to the Miami Herald, several former federal prosecutors from South Florida raised their concerns over the commutation.
“In a perfect world, a commutation would be the result of a thoughtful, apolitical process intended to offset a grave injustice,” Ben Curtis, a former federal prosecutor who has tried dozens of Medicare fraud cases, told the Miami Herald. “Did that happen here? Seeing this decision today and knowing the history of health care fraud in South Florida, it’s tough not to become cynical about the justice system.”
At first glance, Esformes' commutation sticks out when compared to the other names on the list of 15 pardons and five commutations from the president. Many of the people who received clemency on Tuesday were former public Trump allies who were implicated in political scandals. Esformes, on the other hand, has been an active donor to several Democratic party candidates, according to the Herald.
However, the New York Times reported that Esformes' support for the Aleph Institute, a Jewish humanitarian organization that advocates prisoners' rights, played a role in his commutation. Aleph worked closely with the Trump administration on criminal justice reform legislation. According to Aleph, Esformes donated $65,000 to the group over a period of several years beginning after his indictment.
It is common for presidents to use the final days of their terms to grant executive clemency to a large number of inmates. Former President Barack Obama granted clemency to 1,927 people convicted of federal crimes, including 330 on his last full day in office. Trump has granted clemency 61 times so far, and it has been reported recently that he is considering using it to pardon some of his family members and close associates.
Howard Srebnick, Esformes' attorney, did not provide any explicit comments on his client's commuation, but said in a statement per the Chicago Tribune that the decision from the White House shows “that the president was deeply disturbed by the prosecutors’ invasion of the attorney-client privilege.”
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