Maryland executive charged with bribing Harvard fencing coach to guarantee sons’ admission
A Maryland telecommunications executive ensured his two sons were admitted to Harvard University by plying the school’s fencing coach with inducements totaling $1.5 million, including buying the coach’s house at an inflated price, paying his car loan and utility bills, and funneling payoffs through charitable foundations, according to court papers charging the pair in a bribery conspiracy.
The executive, Jie “Jack” Zhao, and the coach, Peter Brand, were arrested Monday morning, federal authorities said. Harvard fired the coach, saying he had violated the school’s policies on managing conflicts of interest, after the Boston Globe detailed a series of transactions linking Zhao to Brand in 2019.
The case against Zhao, 61, and Brand, 67, was brought by the same federal prosecutor’s office that uncovered William “Rick” Singer’s cash-for-admissions scheme, and the Internal Revenue Service agent who signed the charging documents against Zhao and Brand, Elizabeth Keating, was among the case agents who oversaw Singer’s cooperation. Yet there is no indication that Singer or any of his conspirators were involved in the Harvard deal.
Bill Weinreb, who represents Zhao, described his client’s sons as “academic stars” and talented fencers “who obtained admission to Harvard on their own merit.”
“Mr. Zhao adamantly denies these charges and will vigorously contest them in court,” Weinreb said in a statement.
Brand’s attorney, Douglas Brooks, said the coach “did nothing wrong” concerning the admission of Zhao’s children, whom he described as “academic and fencing stars.” Brand, his lawyer said, “looks forward to the truth coming out in court.”
Federal authorities contend that Zhao and Brand began conspiring in 2012, at a time when the coach and his wife were under immense financial strain.
“We have almost no money in Bank of America and there are bill (sic) pending,” his wife wrote in an email that year, according to Keating’s affidavit. “Do NOT use the atm for ANYTHING.” After Brand withdrew money at a grocery store, she sent him an email with the subject line, “STOP. STOP. STOP.”
“We are down to $100 in the account until Friday and there may be pending purchases,” she wrote, according to the affidavit.
In May 2012, Brand tapped out a text message to a fencing coach in Virginia. “Jack doesn’t need to take me anywhere and his boys don’t have to be great fencers,” he wrote, according to the affidavit. “All I need is a good incentive to recruit him.”
Zhao’s older son was a high school sophomore at the time and an “accomplished fencer,” Keating wrote. His coach, unnamed in the affidavit, told investigators that he and Zhao proposed making a donation to Harvard’s fencing program in exchange for Brand recruiting Zhao’s son, but Brand rejected the plan in favor of one “that would provide him with a personal financial benefit,” the affidavit said.
The Virginia coach, who is cooperating in hopes of being granted immunity, told authorities that Zhao contributed $1 million to a fencing charity in 2013 with the understanding the charity would then pass the money to a foundation established by Brand, according to the affidavit.
That year, a charity called the National Fencing Foundation of Washington, D.C., which listed Zhao as its vice president, reported accepting $1,002,275 in gifts, grants or contributions, according to public tax records. The figure dwarfed its reported income in previous and ensuing years; the charity, by comparison, recorded just $7,560 in contributions in 2010, $2,150 in 2011, $25,534 in 2012, and nothing in 2014 and 2015, the tax records show.
In October 2013, Harvard admissions officers notified Brand that they’d deemed the admission of Zhao’s older son as “likely,” the agent’s affidavit said. Brand forwarded the email to his wife, adding, “Good news indeed :)” He also texted the boy’s coach: “Your man is good to go,” he wrote, according to the affidavit.
The following year, after Zhao’s son matriculated at Harvard, the “National Fencing Foundation of D.C.” paid $100,000 to the “Peter Brand Foundation,” tax records show. The foundation, which was dissolved in 2016, listed its officers in public records as Brand and his wife, Jacqueline Phillips.
Zhao also paid Brand directly, Keating wrote in her affidavit, listing a number of expenses the businessman covered: $2,573 for Brand’s water and sewer bill, $34,563 for his car loan, $8,428 for his son’s tuition at Penn State, $32,339 to cover a student loan payment, and $119,051 for three mortgage payments on Brand’s Needham, Mass., home, the affidavit says.
In May 2016, Zhao purchased Brand’s home for $989,500, Keating wrote. The price — $440,000 above its assessed value — triggered an inspection from a perplexed town assessor, who described the home in his notes as “vintage 1960s” and “in bad shape,” the affidavit said. “MAKES NO SENSE,” the assessor wrote.
Four months after his father bought Brand’s house, Zhao’s younger son received a letter from Harvard saying his admission as a recruited fencer had been deemed “likely,” the affidavit said.
Brand, meanwhile, had purchased a $1.3-million condominium in Cambridge with the help of Zhao, who contributed $50,000 to an escrow account, Keating wrote. Zhao also paid a contractor $154,626 to renovate the condominium, the affidavit said.
In July 2017, Zhao listed the Needham house he’d purchased from Brand 14 months earlier for $699,000. Although Zhao told the Boston Globe in 2019 that he’d bought the house as an investment, he ultimately sold it for $665,000, taking a loss of $324,500, the affidavit said.
Zhao’s older son, who captained Harvard’s fencing team, graduated in 2018. His younger son is a senior at Harvard and remains on the fencing team.
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