Former Harvard University fencing coach Peter Brand expected a $7.5 million kickback from a wealthy Maryland businessman in exchange for helping his two sons get admitted to the elite school as fencing recruits and then complained when the initial payment was only $100,000, a witness for prosecutors told jurors Tuesday in federal court in Boston.
Taking the stand at the bribery trial of Brand and businessman Jie “Jack” Zhao, Alexandre Ryjik described himself as “the middleman in a conspiracy scheme” to funnel payments from one man to the other through charitable organizations, while admittedly keeping some of Zhao’s money for himself.
As part of the scheme, Ryjik said, Zhao donated $1 million to Ryjik’s fencing charity in 2013, with the understanding that the money would be forwarded to Brand through another charity after Zhao’s sons were admitted to Harvard. But, Ryjik said, he decided to give Brand significantly less money — only $100,000 — when board members of his charity raised questions about his plans to donate money to a new nonprofit created by Brand that proposed paying salaries totaling more than $75,000 annually to Brand’s wife and son.
At the same time, Brand was asking for $7.5 million for his charity, according to e-mails and text messages shown to jurors.
In an October 2013 e-mail to Ryjik, Brand wrote, “I just want to confirm that the contributions total 7.5 Million as we discussed this initially to make sure that all of this is worth my while.”
Ryjik testified that he previously told Brand that Zhao believed a Chinese parent he knew had paid $7.5 million to the University of Pennsylvania fencing program for the recruitment of two fencers. Brand now expected the same amount.
“I got scared because I thought the whole deal is going to get exposed,” Ryjik said.
Ultimately, Ryjik said, he contributed only $100,000 of Zhao’s money to Brand’s new charity, the Peter Brand Foundation. He admitted that he rejected Zhao’s request to return his remaining $900,000. He kept it for his own charity, the National Fencing Foundation, of Washington, D.C., and used some of that money for personal expenses — including paying $30,000 for his own son’s tuition at Harvard.
Brand, 69, of Cambridge, and Zhao, 63, a telecommunications executive, each face one count of bribery and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and honest services wire fraud — essentially an allegation that Harvard was defrauded and deprived of Brand’s honest services. They were indicted two years ago on the heels of the Varsity Blues bribery scandal that led to the convictions of more than 50 parents, coaches, and administrators and cast a spotlight on the corrupt influence of wealth on college admissions decisions nationwide.
Prosecutors allege that Brand and Zhao devised the bribery scheme along with Ryjik, who ran a Virginia fencing academy and coached Zhao’s sons when they were in high school.
Ryjik testified that he had been friends with Brand for years, but their relationship “almost ceased to exist” after Zhao’s oldest son was admitted to Harvard and Ryjik’s charity decided not to contribute more money to Brand’s charity.
The investigation that led to the case followed a series of Globe reports in 2019 that raised questions about Zhao’s purchase of Brand’s home at a grossly inflated price at the same time his younger son was being recruited by the coach.
Prosecutors have indicated they may call Boston Globe journalist Joshua Miller to the stand as a witness. Last week, US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., who is presiding over the trial, denied the Globe’s request to quash a government subpoena demanding Miller’s appearance at the trial. O’Toole rejected the Globe’s argument that Miller, who spoke to Zhao multiple times for the Globe articles, should have First Amendment protections from being forced to testify, saying his conversations with Zhao were not confidential.
In court Tuesday, Ryjik testified that Zhao called him in 2019 after he was contacted by the Globe and the two met outside his Virginia fencing academy, where he advised Zhao to get a lawyer and not talk to the reporter.
“I didn’t want him to say anything that would be revealing the truth,” Ryjik said.
During cross-examination, Zhao’s attorney, Michael Packard, grilled Ryjik about his deal with the government, in which it has agreed not to prosecute him for his role in the alleged conspiracy in exchange for his testimony.
Ryjik acknowledged that he received $150,000 in COVID-related loans from the government during the pandemic that were supposed to help struggling businesses and that he claimed to have 14 employees at the time, then used the loans to pay his own salary but gave no payments to his workers.
He blamed his accountant for errors on his loan applications and admitted he misused the money, but said he’s in the process of repaying the $90,000 he owes to the government. Ryjik also acknowledged he has failed to refund money to clients who paid him for fencing classes that were canceled during the pandemic.
Brand coached Harvard’s men’s and women’s fencing teams for 20 years before he was fired in 2019 for violating the school’s conflict of interest policy.
During opening statements in the trial Monday, defense lawyers described Zhao’s two sons as outstanding athletes and students who were admitted on their own merit in 2014 and 2017. Both of them competed on Harvard’s fencing team for four years and graduated with honors.
Prosecutors allege Zhao, in 2015, paid the $119,000 outstanding mortgage on Brand’s Needham house, $8,400 for Brand’s son’s tuition at Penn State University, $32,340 for Brand’s son’s student loans, $2,500 for Brand’s water and sewer bill, and more than $34,000 for Brand’s new Chevrolet Camaro.
The following year, Zhao purchased Brand’s Needham home for $989,500, which was more than $440,000 above its assessed value. Seventeen months later, he sold it for a $324,500 loss, according to property records. Brand used the proceeds from the original sale to purchase a Cambridge condominium, and Zhao paid him $50,000 toward the purchase and an additional $154,600 for renovations, prosecutors allege.
Brand’s lawyer told jurors the payments were loans, which he repaid last year with an inheritance that he received from his late mother.