Harvard’s former fencing coach arrested in alleged bribery admission scheme

The former fencing coach at Harvard has been accused of taking at least $1.5 million from a Maryland businessman to get the man’s two sons into the prestigious Ivy League school.

The case is separate from the infamous “Varsity Blues” scandal involving the likes of Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

The former fencing coach at Harvard University has been accused of taking at least $1.5 million from a Maryland businessman in order to get the man’s two sons into the prestigious Ivy League school. Both men were arrested on Nov. 16. 

Federal prosecutors said Peter Brand, 67, allegedly conspired with Jie “Jack” Zhao, 61, a Maryland businessman, to get Zhao’s two sons into Harvard by recruiting them to join the school’s fencing team in exchange for money, according to a statement released on Nov. 16 from the Department of Justice.

Brand was the coach of men and women’s fencing at Harvard, while Zhao is CEO of a telecommunications company, officials said. Zhao lives in the affluent Washington, D.C. suburb of Potomac, Maryland.

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The case is separate from the infamous “Varsity Blues” scandal involving the likes of Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, but part of what U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said was a "long-standing effort to expose and deter corruption in college admissions."

“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,”  said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division. “Now they are accused of exchanging more than $1.5 million in bribes for their own personal benefit. The FBI will continue to work hard to identify others like them who are cheating the millions of kids laser-focused on getting into schools the right way.”

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The charges against Brand come a year after The Boston Globe reported that the coach’s Needham home had been bought by Zhao for nearly $1 million or $440,000 above its assessed price of  $549,300. Brand used the money from that sale to purchase a $1.3 million condo in Cambridge, authorities said. This spurred an investigation by Harvard into Brand’s connection with Zhao and led to his firing in July 2019.

According to Harvard Athletics, Brand had been coaching at the school since 1999. 

“I hope that the announcement of today’s charges against Brand and Zhao demonstrates to others that cheating to gain an unfair advantage will not be tolerated,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Joleen Simpson of the Internal Revenue Service - Criminal Investigation Division.

Zhao allegedly made a donation of $1 million to a fencing charity operated by another person involved with the scheme, according to the statement. 

The businessman’s older son was admitted to Harvard as a fencing recruit in December 2013 and enrolled in the fall of 2014. Soon after, the fencing charity passed $100,000 to the Peter Brand Foundation, a charitable fund established by Brand and his wife, according to the statement. At this point, Zhao was making payments to Brand, officials said.  

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In total, Zhao allegedly made $1.5 million in payments to Brand, according to the statement. In addition to buying his home, Zhao paid for tuition installments for Brand’s son, paid for the coach’s car, and paid for the renovations of his new Cambridge condo, officials said. 

Zhao’s younger son enrolled in Harvard in 2017, according to the statement. 

Brand made an appearance in federal court in Boston on Nov. 16, while Zhao was expected to do the same, but at a federal court in Greenbelt, Md. Both men are looking at up to five years in prison, according to authorities.  

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