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Quest for Harvard entry ends in $2m tangle

Students pass in front of Harvard’s Widener Library. To Gerald and Lily Chow, education consultant Mark Zimny must have seemed like the answer to many parents’ prayer.

REUTERS/File

Students pass in front of Harvard’s Widener Library. To Gerald and Lily Chow, education consultant Mark Zimny must have seemed like the answer to many parents’ prayer.

To Gerald and Lily Chow, education consultant Mark Zimny must have seemed like the answer to many parents’ prayer: Please let my child get into Harvard University.

The Chows, who lived in Hong Kong, knew little about the US educational system, but they did know that they wanted an Ivy League education for their sons. And they had money to spend on consultants like Zimny, who, they believed, could help make the dream come true.

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What transpired, however, turned out to be a cautionary tale for the thousands of parents who are fueling the growing global admissions-consulting industry.

Zimny, whom they met in 2007, had credentials. He had worked as a professor at Harvard. He ran an education consultancy, IvyAdmit. And he had a plan to help the Chows’ two sons, then 16 and 14.

First, Zimny’s company would provide tutoring and supervision while the boys attended American prep schools. Then, according to a complaint and other documents the Chows filed as part of a lawsuit in US District Court in Boston, Zimny said he would grease the admissions wheels, funneling donations to elite colleges while also investing on the Chows’ behalf.

According to the suit, Zimny warned the Chows against giving to schools directly. “Embedded racism” made development offices wary of Asian donors, he allegedly advised them; better to use his company as a middleman.

Over two years, the Chows gave IvyAdmit $2.2 million.

Now, they are charging that Zimny lied to them repeatedly, committing fraud, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and several other transgressions — and they want their money back.

Zimny, like the Chows, declined to comment for this article. But in legal papers, he has denied or questioned some of their allegations while admitting to others.

Documents show he did take the $2.2 million, and that his employees tutored the Chows, sometimes so intensely as to do schoolwork for them.

Yet major questions remain unresolved. Where did the Chows’ money go? The Chows allege that Zimny promised — falsely — to use some of it for donations to schools and invest the rest, using the proceeds to pay his own fees.

In depositions thus far, Zimny has not provided clear or comprehensive answers to the question. But documents show that while he was working with the Chows he made numerous investments in real estate, and e-mails show he tried to interest the family in property as well.

And did the Chows think that their money could guarantee their sons’ admission to elite schools? They allege that Zimny promised to pull personal strings with development officers at Ivy League colleges. A detailed written plan, prepared for one of the sons, baldly says, “our target university is Harvard.”

But a failed motion by Zimny’s lawyers to dismiss says the Chows’ agreement with Zimny was “nebulous.” It goes on to argue that legal blame should lie with the Chows because “common law counts do not serve as an insurance policy for poor judgment, avarice, or any other of many human failings.” In other words: caveat emptor.

More answers may come soon. The lawsuit is scheduled for a November status conference, and according to one of the Chows’ attorneys, it is likely to pick up speed this fall and winter.

The Chows are from China, where college admission is simple and based largely on an exam score rather than a Byzantine process involving essays, extracurriculars, and intangibles. “A lot of them don’t understand how the American college system works,” said Elizabeth Stone, a consultant who has been approached by many Chinese hopefuls. “I think the mentality is, ‘you can buy your way in.’ ”

At least some of what Zimny allegedly told the Chows was true.

The Harvard line on his résumé, for instance, was real. He had been both a lecturer and visiting assistant professor at the college and the Graduate School of Education between 2001 and 2005. He occasionally appeared in the Crimson, opining on plagiarism and chuckling at student pranks played during one of his popular courses, a lecture on deviant behavior. That subject is complicated, he told the Crimson in 2001: to understand it, “you really have to get down and dirty.”

Meanwhile, Zimny was launching a side career with IvyAdmit, which — according to a person he tried to recruit as an employee — began by targeting Chinese MBA applicants and then offering educational services to the children of wealthy Asian families.

Zimny introduced himself to the Chows in 2007 at a ceremony at a Massachusetts prep school where one of the Chow boys was enrolled. After that, he courted them, arranging meetings in Hong Kong and Cambridge, including a dinner with friends who were full Harvard professors, according to a mutual acquaintance who was there.

In an official-looking document Zimny gave the Chows, he said those professors were his business partners, though one of them told the Globe that was not the case.

Had the Chows done outside research, they might have thought twice about Zimny’s invitations. A Google search, for instance, could have turned up the fact that Zimny no longer worked at Harvard after 2005. Calls to elite universities also might have found that many of them view admissions consultants with skepticism.

“While it is certainly possible that in individual cases an admissions consultant can be helpful to an applicant, we have encountered no evidence to indicate that is the case generally,” Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said in a statement to the Globe.

It is unclear how much, if any, Harvard knows about his activities early on. Zimny listed no affiliation with his industry’s dominant trade group, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, or IECA, which bars two of his alleged practices — raising family fears that admissions are cutthroat, and acting as a middleman for donations.

Then there were his prices. The association has refused to accept consultants who charge in the mid-five figures for several years’ worth of prep work “because we consider that so outrageous,” said Mark Sklarow, its executive director.

Zimny proposed to provide unusually thorough services, but the complaint alleges he asked for an astonishing amount in return.

At first, according to invoices, receipts, and financial statements, the Chows wired him at least $8,000 a month for their two boys. Then, in late 2008 and early 2009, they gave him a $2 million retainer.

In exchange, several of Zimny’s employees provided intense tutoring and miscellaneous help not only to the Chow sons, but also to their father, Gerald, a jewelry magnate. The invoices suggest that some of the employees went so far as to write papers for their clients.

That, too, should have been a red flag, said Michael Goran, an admissions consultant and member of IECA: “We sign in blood that we won’t write essays for people.”

After awhile, the Chows started to grow suspicious. According to their legal complaint, in late 2009, they finally began to ask questions of officials at their son’s prep schools. They also discovered that Zimny had failed to make certain donations on their behalf and had overcharged them for some of their sons’ activities.

A final straw, according to legal papers, came when Zimny discouraged Gerald Chow from donating $1 million to Stanford University in the name of Chow’s deceased mother. That wouldn’t work, Zimny allegedly said: All donations needed to go through him.

The Chows did not make the donation. The next year, they filed suit. Today, they can take comfort in one fact — their sons did wind up at top universities (though not at Harvard).

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether IvyAdmit remains operational. Zimny still checks his company e-mail address — he responded to an inquiry from the Globe within hours. The firm is listed as active in a Connecticut state database, and its website is still online.

But the firm’s listed phone number doesn’t work. And although some of the people the site names as IvyAdmit’s “team” are or were apparently real employees — they are listed in invoices as having worked with the Chows — three told the Globe that they knew Zimny but never worked for IvyAdmit.

At least one of those listed as an employee plans to watch the Chows’ suit closely over the coming months. He said he is keen to see more details come out.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com.

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