Monday court filings in support of federal prosecutors’ case against a former Harvard fencing coach and parent paint a picture of two men respectively beset by financial difficulties and intent on securing his sons’ admission to the College.
An affidavit filed Monday aims to outline the men’s motivations for allegedly attempting to game the college admissions system. Federal authorities arrested the parent, Jie “Jack” Zhao, and former coach, Peter Brand, Monday on charges of bribery.
As part of the scheme, Zhao allegedly donated $1 million to a fencing charity to launder money to the coach, in addition to direct payments he made to finance the coach’s lifestyle.
The affidavit states that those payments included $8,428.66 to pay for the coach’s son’s college tuition; $32,339.92 to pay off the son’s college loans; $119,051.52 to pay off a mortgage on the coach’s home; $2,573.45 to pay his water and sewer bills; $34,563.25 to pay for his car; $50,000 to help the coach purchase a condominium; $154,626.41 to finance renovations done to the condominium; and $989,500 to purchase the coach’s former home — $440,000 more than its market value.
Brand did not disclose to Harvard the payments Zhao made to him, or that Zhao made to finance his expenses, per the affidavit.
The charges mark the latest development in an athletics admissions scandal that first grabbed headlines in April 2019, when the Boston Globe reported that Zhao, a Maryland resident who is the co-founder of the telecommunications company iTalk Global Communications Inc., purchased Brand’s Needham, Mass. home in 2016 for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than its market value. Soon after the transaction, Zhao’s youngest son gained admission to Harvard College as a recruited fencer.
Zhao’s oldest son graduated from the College in 2018; his other son is slated to graduate in 2021, according to a Harvard directory.
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay launched an investigation into the real estate transaction between Brand and Zhao soon after it was first reported. Three months later, Harvard dismissed Brand, finding he violated the University’s conflict of interest policy. Separately that summer, a federal grand jury also began an investigation into the 2016 real estate transaction.
Conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery — the charge leveled against Zhao and Brand — carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or two times the total financial gain or loss, whichever is greater.
An affidavit in support of the criminal complaint filed on Nov. 13 by Elizabeth Keating — a special agent with the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service — reveals Brand allegedly accepted roughly $1.5 million to secure the admission of Zhao’s two sons to Harvard. Keating wrote that she had “probable cause” to believe Zhao and Brand colluded from 2012 to 2017 to secure Zhao’s sons’ places at Harvard College as recruited fencers in exchange for financial support awarded to Brand.
In an emailed statement, Zhao's attorney, William Weinreb, wrote that Zhao will fight the charges in court.
"Jack Zhao’s children were academic stars in high school and internationally competitive fencers who obtained admission to Harvard on their own merit," he wrote. "Both of them fenced for Harvard at the Division One level throughout their college careers. Mr. Zhao adamantly denies these charges and will vigorously contest them in court.”
Douglas S. Brooks, Brand's attorney, wrote in an email that Brand did not break the law.
“The students were academic and fencing stars,” he wrote. “Coach Brand did nothing wrong in connection with their admission to Harvard. He looks forward to the truth coming out in court.”
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on Monday’s arrests.
Keating wrote in the affidavit that a Virginia-based fencing coach who trained Zhao’s two sons while they were in high school — cited as “co-conspirator 1” — facilitated the scheme by using a fencing charity he ran to allegedly launder payments from Zhao to Brand. Though “CC-1” initially helped facilitate the agreement, he allegedly also siphoned off the money Zhao donated to defray his personal expenses, including his own son’s Harvard College tuition.
CC-1 provided information to the government regarding the scheme in exchange for immunity from prosecution, according to the affidavit. Though CC-1 is not named in the affidavit, the Boston Globe identified him as Alexandre Ryjik, the head of the Virginia Academy of Fencing and president of the National Fencing Foundation.
Less than two weeks after Brand’s spouse informed him that they “maxed out our equity line of credit,” Brand suggested to CC-1 in a text message that he would recruit Zhao’s sons in return for personal benefits, per the affidavit.
“Jack doesn’t need to take me anywhere and his boys don’t have to be great fencers. All I need is a good incentive to recruit them,” Brand wrote on May 2, 2012.
While Zhao and CC-1 proposed to Brand that Zhao would make a contribution to the Harvard fencing program in exchange for Zhao’s sons’ recruitment, Brand declined. Instead, Brand asked Zhao to provide him personal financial benefits, according to an account of the arrangement that CC-1 provided investigators.
On Feb. 19, 2013, Zhao donated roughly $1 million to CC-1’s fencing charity. On Dec. 13, 2013, Zhao’s older son was admitted to Harvard’s Class of 2018. Later that day, Zhao emailed Brand, “Hi Boss...It is official now. I just want to thank you for what you did, really appreciate,” according to the affidavit.
On Oct. 10, 2014, CC-1’s fencing charity contributed $100,000 to a non-profit recently established in Brand’s name, funded by Zhao’s previous donation. Zhao then asked CC-1 to reimburse him for the remaining $900,000 he donated to the charity. But CC-1 refused to return the money, instead using it for his own personal expenses, including $31,571.75 towards his son’s Harvard tuition.
After CC-1 refused to return the money, according to the affidavit, Zhao began making direct payments to Brand — including the 2016 purchase of Brand’s home.
In addition to purchasing Brand’s home at an inflated price, Zhao financed Brand’s purchase of a car, Brand’s son’s college tuition, the mortgage on Brand’s Needham, Mass. residence, and the renovation of his Cambridge condominium, per the affidavit.
In summer 2016, Brand began recruiting Zhao’s younger son to Harvard’s fencing team. Several months later, on May 3, Zhao purchased Brand’s Needham, Mass. home. Brand used the money to purchase a condominium in Cambridge for $1.3 million.
The inflated purchasing price spurred city officials to inspect the house.
“SOLD TO BUYER FROM VIRGINIA FOR $990 K??? PLACE IS VINTAGE 1960’S IN BAD SHAPE???” a city assessor wrote. “MAKES NO SENSE.”
On June 24, 2016, Brand emailed an associate director of Harvard Athletics, informing him he had offered a recruiting slot to Zhao’s younger son and four other prospective students, per the affidavit.
On Sept. 20, 2016, Brand emailed a Harvard admissions officer asking whether Harvard had made a decision regarding the younger son’s application and that of another potential recruit. All recruited athletes have their applications reviewed by Harvard’s full admissions committee.
“We did review those two already and it looks good for both,” the admissions officer replied.
—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.