Ex-Harvard coach, Maryland dad charged in $1.5M admissions scam

The former fencing coach at Harvard and a wealthy Maryland businessman were arrested Monday on accusations that the coach took $1.5 million in bribes in exchange for helping the businessman get his two sons into the Ivy League school as recruited fencers.

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Peter Brand, 67, who was fired by Harvard last year, and Jie “Jack” Zhao, 61, of Potomac, Maryland, face a charge of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery. Their arrest comes more than a year after a newspaper reported that Brand sold his home for nearly double its assessed value to Zhao. Zhao also paid for Brand’s car and helped cover Brand's son's college tuition, prosecutors said.

“Today’s arrests show how Peter Brand’s and Jie Zhao’s plan to circumvent the college admissions process ended up backfiring on both of them. Now they are accused of exchanging more than $1.5 million in bribes for their own personal benefit,” Joseph Bonavolonta, head of the FBI Boston Division, said in an emailed statement.

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The case is separate from the recent college admissions scandal in which an admission consultant ran a scheme to get kids into top universities across the country with rigged test scores or fake athletic credentials.

An attorney for Zhao said the man denies the accusations and will vigorously contest them 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. Both of them fenced for Harvard at the Division One level throughout their college careers," Attorney William Weinreb said in an email.

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Zhao’s younger son started at Harvard in 2017 and is currently a member of the fencing team, prosecutors said.

Questions about the relationship between Brand and Zhao first surfaced last year when The Boston Globe reported that Brand received nearly $1 million in 2016 for the three-bedroom house on a quarter-acre in Needham, which was assessed at the time at $549,300. Zhao never lived in the home and sold it for a steep loss 17 months later, the newspaper reported.

Zhao, who is CEO of a telecommunications company, told The Globe in an interview last year that he purchased the home as an investment and as a favor to Brand and denied it was done to help his son get into the prestigious university.

Brand didn't disclose the payments from Zhao to Harvard, authorities said, and Brand was fired from the school in July 2019 for violating its conflict-of-interest policy. A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment Monday.

Court documents detail Brand's financial troubles leading up to the bribery scheme, which began in 2012, prosecutors said. Brand told an unnamed co-conspirator, who coached Zhao's sons in high school: “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.”

In 2013, Zhao gave $1 million to a fencing charity, and months later Zhao's older son was admitted to Harvard as a fencing recruit, prosecutors said. Shortly after the teen started at Harvard in the fall of 2014, the charity gave $100,000 to a foundation established by Brand and his spouse, authorities said.

Then, prosecutors say Zhao started paying Brand directly, helping to pay off the mortgage for Brand's Needham home, writing checks to Pennsylvania State University for Brand's son tuition, and even paying Brand's water and sewer bill.

The sale of Brand's home to Zhao raised questions, with the city assessor writing in his notes at the time: “MAKES NO SENSE," according to court documents. Brand used the money from the sale of the home to pay $1.3 million — above asking price — for a condo in Cambridge, authorities said. Zhao then paid least $150,000 to help Brand renovate his new condo, officials said.