Harvard’s former fencing coach and a Maryland telecommunications executive were arrested by federal authorities Monday in an elaborate $1.5 million bribery scheme that allegedly secured the businessman’s sons entry into the school and spots on the vaunted fencing team.
Jie “Jack” Zhao, 61, of Potomac, Md., bought legendary fencing coach Peter Brand’s Needham house at an inflated price, renovated Brand’s new condo, paid his car loan and utility bills, and funneled other payments to Brand through nonprofit foundations, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday in federal court in Boston.
In exchange, prosecutors said, Brand, 67, of Cambridge, promised spots on the school’s fencing team, and recruited both of Zhao’s sons, one of which entered Harvard in 2014, the other in 2017.
The federal charges marked the first time Harvard staff has been criminally implicated in the admissions scandal roiling campuses across the country. The alleged Harvard scam played out over several years, involving several men at the top of the rarefied sport, reaching into international fencing tournaments and a well-known training academy, while corrupting Harvard’s process for recruiting elite athletes.
“This case is part of our long-standing effort to expose and deter corruption in college admissions,” US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement. “Millions of teenagers strive for college admission every year. We will do our part to make that playing field as level as we possibly can.”
The federal charges follow a series of Boston Globe investigative reports that began last year, the first of which raised questions about Zhao’s purchase of Brand’s home at an inflated price, around the time of his younger son’s recruitment. Later, Globe stories revealed other financial transactions and text messages that allegedly outlined the recruitment scheme.
The stories rocked the fencing community and dragged Harvard, for the first time, into an ongoing national college admissions scandal. But while Operation Varsity Blues involved resume-padding and inflated test scores, prosecutors portrayed the fencing recruitment scam as a more direct bribery scheme.
In an e-mail, Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane declined to comment.
Both men appeared in court Monday afternoon, Brand in Boston and Zhao in Maryland. A bearded Brand said little during the afternoon video proceeding and was later released on bond.
His attorney, Douglas Brooks, said in an e-mail that “Coach Brand did nothing wrong in connection with [the sons’] admission to Harvard. He looks forward to the truth coming out in court.”
An attorney for Zhao, multimillionaire cofounder of the global telecommunications company iTalk Global Communications Inc., said via e-mail that his client denies the charges. William D. Weinreb said Zhao’s sons were “academic stars in high school and internationally competitive fencers who obtained admission to Harvard on their own merit."
The scheme, according to prosecutors, stems from Brand’s desire for personal financial support, and Zhao’s yearning to have his sons attend Harvard.
The earliest seeds of the plot originated in 2012, when Brand came into the orbit of Zhao, whose older son at the time was a high school sophomore and an “accomplished fencer,” according to the federal complaint. The son trained at a fencing academy run by a man identified in court papers as “co-conspirator one,” who lives in Virginia and is now cooperating with authorities.
Though he wasn’t named in the court filings, the Globe has identified him as Alexandre Ryjik, the Soviet-trained head of the Virginia Academy of Fencing, where both of Zhao’s sons trained, and the president of the National Fencing Foundation, a nonprofit “dedicated to developing the personal character, academic achievement and athletic excellence through the world of fencing.”
An attorney for Ryjik, whose fencing academy has closed due to COVID-19, did not respond to an e-mail or phone call seeking comment. Phil Sbarbaro, an attorney on Ryjik’s foundation board, hung up on a reporter and did not respond to a subsequent e-mail. An inquiry to the foundation’s main mailbox went unanswered.
Prosecutors said the alleged co-conspirator told them that Zhao wanted his older son to attend Harvard.
Around that time, prosecutors allege, Brand and his wife, who worked for the city of Cambridge, had been having financial troubles and could “barely pay the bills,” according to an e-mail she sent him from her work account in February 2009.
Initially, Brand was allegedly noncommittal about recruiting him Zhao’s older son.
However, Brand texted Ryjik in May 2012 that Zhao’s sons “don’t have to be great fencers,” and that Brand just needed “a good incentive” to recruit the boys, according to messages reviewed by the Globe and later cited in the federal complaint. That text came less than two weeks after Brand’s wife had warned that the couple had “maxed out” their equity line of credit, the complaint said.
From there, the men allegedly hatched a plot that involved Zhao making a donation to Ryjik’s fencing charity, which would then make a donation to a nonprofit Brand was planning to start, prosecutors say. In February 2013, Zhao paid about $1 million to the National Fencing Foundation, the largest single payout the charity had ever received, by far.
Meanwhile, Brand and his wife started the Peter Brand Foundation.
Ultimately, prosecutors said, $100,000 was transferred from the fencing foundation to the Brand Foundation, and Zhao later began making direct payments to Brand.
Those payments allegedly included more than $8,000 toward Brand’s son’s college tuition; about $32,000 to pay the son’s educational loans; just over $119,000 toward the mortgage on Brand’s then-Needham home; about $2,500 for Brand’s water and sewer bill; and roughly $34,000 for a car loan, the complaint said.
Brand later helped facilitate the admission of Zhao’s younger son in the summer of 2016, according to prosecutors. Around the same time, Zhao agreed to buy Brand’s home for $989,500, more than $440,000 over the property’s assessed value.
The Needham assessor wrote in his notes that the sale of the Needham property made “NO SENSE.” Brand, for his part, subsequently purchased a $1.3 million apartment in Cambridge, offering $311,000 over asking price in what the realtor who represented the sellers later told the Globe was “a very aggressive offer.”
Zhao in July 2017 listed the Needham residence for $699,000, about $300,000 less than he bought it for. The home sold for $665,000.
In July 2019, following Globe reports, Harvard fired Brand. The school said an “independent investigation of the matter is now complete, and Mr. Brand has been dismissed from his position for violating Harvard’s conflict-of-interest policy.
The firing capped a sharp fall from the grace for the coach, who had arrived at the university in 1999 and propelled its beleaguered team from the bottom of the Ivy League rankings to the top, sending fencers to the Olympics and earning a cascade of “coach of the year” accolades. He regularly traveled to international tournaments, and had a strong reputation in the tight-knit fencing community.
But on Monday, he was released from federal custody on $500,000 bond, ordered to surrender any passports and avoid contact with Zhao, his alleged benefactor.