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Ex-fencing coach, telecom CEO face charges in $1.5 million bribery scheme to get kids into Harvard

The former Harvard coach allegedly took the bribes to secure the admission of the executive's children to the Ivy League school as fencing recruits.
2019 NCAA Division I Women's Fencing Championship
Head coach Peter Brand talks to Veronica Czyzewski of Harvard as she competes against Karolina Cieslar of St. John's in the Saber semi finals during the Division I Women's Fencing Championship in Cleveland on March 24, 2019.Jason Miller / NCAA Photos via Getty Images file

A former top fencing coach at Harvard University and a telecommunications executive were arrested Monday in an alleged bribery scheme involving the school's fencing team, federal authorities said.

Peter Brand, 67, and Jie “Jack” Zhao, 61, face charges of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts said.

Brand allegedly secured admissions for Zhao’s two children to Harvard as fencing recruits in exchange for more than $1.5 million in bribes, the office said in a statement.

The charges were filed more than a year after the Boston Globe first reported that Zhao bought Brand’s home in Needham, southwest of Boston, for nearly $1 million, or $440,000 above its assessed value.

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On Sept. 29, 2016, nearly five months after the sale, Zhao’s younger son received a letter from Harvard saying he was likely to be accepted as a fencing recruit, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.

The sale prompted an inspection from the local assessor, who wrote in his notes that it “makes no sense,” according to the documents.

Zhao, CEO of a telecom company who lives in Maryland, allegedly made another series of payments to Brand in 2015 that covered school loans for his children and their tuition at Penn State University. He also paid Brand’s water, sewer and mortgage bills, and gave him a $34,563 car loan, the documents say.

Those payments came after Zhao’s older son was also admitted to Harvard as a fencing recruit in 2013. According to the documents, Zhao contributed $1 million to a fencing charity, which then paid $100,000 to a foundation that Brand and his wife had recently established.

The documents say the scheme began after Brand and his wife were struggling to pay bills.

Harvard fired Brand in 2019 after the Globe reported on the home sale. The school’s athletic director said he had violated the university's conflict of interest policy.

In a statement Monday, Brand’s lawyer described Zhao’s children as “academic and fencing stars” and said the former coach had done nothing wrong in the admissions process.

Zhao’s lawyer, Bill Weinreb, said that Zhao “adamantly denies the charges and will vigorously contest them in court.”

Neither have entered a plea.

The charges come more than a year after federal prosecutors in Massachusetts announced charges in a sprawling scheme — uncovered in an investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues — that targeted dozens of wealthy parents who secured admissions for their children to elite universities through a for-profit college prep counselor, Rick Singer. Among those caught in the scam were actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

The charges against Zhao and Brand are separate from Operation Varsity Blues.

U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling called the charges announced Monday as “part of our long-standing effort to expose and deter corruption in college admissions.”