BOSTON — The former captain of Harvard’s fencing team told a federal jury on Tuesday that the sons of Jie “Jack” Zhao, who is accused of paying bribes to get his children into the College as fencing recruits, were talented athletes who were qualified to be on the team.
Geoffrey Tourette ’21, who captained Harvard’s fencing team from 2019 to 2021, said Eric Y. Zhao ’18 was a “terrific leader” and called Edward Y. Zhao ’21 “one of the most committed” fencers on the team who made a “huge positive impact.”
Jack Zhao is facing trial alongside former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand, who prosecutors say accepted more than $1.5 million in bribes as part of a scheme to get Zhao’s kids into the College.
The government rested its case Tuesday afternoon after calling 14 witnesses across the first five-and-a-half days of trial.
As defense attorneys for Brand and Zhao began presenting their case, they sought to show that Zhao’s sons were admitted based on athletic and academic merit.
Zhao’s attorney, Michael T. C. Packard ’02, said government prosecutors went to “great lengths” to “attack” the fencing skills of Edward Zhao, who a government witness testified last week was “not as good” as the other four Harvard fencers at his position.
As Packard spoke, Brand — who has maintained an impassive demeanor throughout the trial — began nodding firmly.
Tourette said Tuesday that Edward Zhao, his close friend and former roommate, had potential to be a top performer on the team, but was set back by a 2019 Boston Globe article that raised questions about the relationship between Brand and his father.
Tourette said Edward Zhao was “shaken up” and could not perform at his best following the publication of the Globe story.
The article “impacted his mental state very negatively,” Tourette said, speaking so quickly that a court stenographer twice asked him to slow down.
Prosecutors allege Zhao paid an array of direct and indirect bribes to Brand, including paying off several loans, covering his son’s college tuition, and buying the former coach’s house at a dramatically inflated price.
Proceedings on Tuesday were stalled for a nearly hourlong recess as Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. deliberated whether to permit examples of Zhao loaning money to others throughout his life as evidence. O’Toole ultimately moved to permit the evidence, but it was not presented on Tuesday.
“Mr. Zhao has twice before made six-figure loans, just as he did here,” Packard told the judge, referring to the payments to Brand.
Defense attorneys said during opening arguments that Zhao’s direct payments to Brand were loans that were repaid in full with interest, though they have yet to present evidence of any repayments. Last week, prosecutors filed a motion to exclude any evidence of a “purported loan agreement or purported post-indictment payments from Brand to Zhao,” saying the deadline for discovery had passed.
Jurors also heard on Tuesday from Joshua Miller, a Boston Globe editor who authored the newspaper’s 2019 investigation into Zhao’s purchase of Brand’s home in Needham, Massachusetts. The Globe challenged a subpoena that ordered Miller to testify, but the judge, O’Toole, ruled he would have to appear.
Other government witnesses on Tuesday included Brand’s next-door neighbor in Needham, a real estate agent who helped Zhao resell Brand’s former home, an IRS investigator, and an auditor with the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.
The trial is set to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.
—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.