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Globe journalist is forced to testify at bribery trial of former Harvard fencing coach and parent

Former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand, accused of taking bribes from Jie "Jack" Zhao, a wealthy parent accused of paying bribes to get his two sons admitted to Harvard University as fencing recruits, leaving the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

A wealthy Maryland businessman said he purchased the Needham home of then-Harvard University fencing coach Peter Brand at an inflated price in 2016 as an investment and “favor’ to the coach, denying it was part of an effort to get his son admitted to the college as a fencing recruit, a Boston Globe journalist testified Tuesday at a federal bribery trial.

Joshua Miller, who broke the story in 2019 about Jie “Jack” Zhao’s purchase of Brand’s home for $989,500 — far more than the assessed value of $543,000 — was forced to testify at the bribery trial of Zhao and Brand in US District Court in Boston after a judge denied Miller’s request to quash a subpoena by the government.


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.

Prosecutors allege Zhao made payments totaling $1.5 million to Brand, and bought his house for nearly twice its value, as part of a scheme to get his two sons admitted to Harvard as fencing recruits.

But defense lawyers said in opening statements that Zhao’s sons were outstanding athletes and students, who were admitted to Harvard on their own merit, and were members of the fencing team for all four years of college. They described Zhao and Brand as close friends and said the payments were loans, which Brand repaid last year with an inheritance from his late mother.

During his brief appearance, Miller, now the Globe’s politics editor, told jurors that statements Zhao made during a series of Globe interviews that were published in an April 2019 article were accurate. That story, which was not shown to jurors, exposed the alleged bribery scheme and triggered the investigation that led to the indictment of Zhao and Brand two years ago.


Zhao acknowledged during an interview at Logan International Airport that his purchase of Brand’s home looked suspect, said Miller, who reported that Zhao sold it 17 months later for a $324,500 loss. But, Zhao said he saw no conflict in buying the home around the same time that his older son was on Harvard’s fencing team and his younger son was a high school junior, actively applying to Harvard as a fencing recruit, according to Miller.

“I recall him telling me that his kids were phenomenally excellent in their academics and fencing skills” and well-qualified for Harvard, Miller said.

Zhao said he had become close friends with Brand while his older son was a freshman on the fencing team and agreed to buy his home so he could move closer to Harvard, Miller said.

“I want to help Peter Brand because I feel so sorry he has to travel so much to go to fencing practice,” Zhao said, according to Miller.

US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., who is presiding over the trial, denied Miller’s request to quash the government’s subpoena demanding Miller’s appearance. O’Toole rejected Miller’s argument that he should have First Amendment protections from being forced to testify, saying his conversations with Zhao were not confidential.

After Miller’s testimony, Dan Krockmalnic, executive vice president for New Media and general counsel of Boston Globe Media, released a statement saying the company supported Miller’s efforts to resist being compelled to testify.


“It is disappointing that the government forced the issue with a subpoena, and we respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling upholding it,” Krockmalnic said. “Mr. Miller’s testimony was the lesser of two evils: answering questions about his newsgathering efforts runs counter to principles of a free and powerful press, but in this instance it was preferable to being held in contempt. Despite the result, we are proud of Mr. Miller’s reporting and are grateful for the support of the Reporters Committee and of so many news organizations around the country.”

In other testimony Tuesday, a realtor told jurors that after Zhao bought the house at 212 Forest St. in Needham from Brand, she helped him sell it for $665,000 in October 2017.

Eleanor Reilly said she was surprised to learn Zhao had paid nearly $1 million for the home 17 months earlier because it was “not in good repair” and needed a lot of work. She said Zhao considered renting it, but she recommended selling it because it needed so many costly repairs.

The government rested its case Tuesday afternoon and the first defense witness was a former member of Harvard’s fencing team, who graduated with Zhao’s younger son, Edward, and described him as a talented and hard-working fencer who had an immediate impact on the team.

Edward Zhao was “one of the most committed” members of the team, Geoffrey Tourette testified. But, he said, Zhao was “shaken up” after the 2019 Globe article detailed his father’s purchase of Brand’s house and was less-focused on his academics and athletics.


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.