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Admissions Bribery Trial of Former Harvard Fencing Coach Set to Begin Monday

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Former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand and ex-Harvard College parent Jie “Jack” Zhao are set to go on trial in federal court Monday, more than two years after they were first arrested on bribery charges.

Federal prosecutors allege Brand and Zhao conspired to secure admission into Harvard for Zhao’s two sons with bribes totaling $1.5 million.

Prosecutors allege that between 2012 and 2017, Brand accepted an array of bribes from Zhao in exchange for the coach’s help getting Zhao’s two sons into Harvard as fencing recruits. Over the five-year period, Zhao paid Brand’s mortgage, car loan, and his son’s college tuition, prosecutors say, making up for the coach’s previous financial struggles. Brand eventually sold his home to the Maryland businessman at an inflated price.

Opening arguments in the case are set to begin Monday morning before Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. The trial is expected to last more than two weeks, with more than 60 names on the government’s witness list — including longtime Harvard Admissions Dean William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 and other officials from the school’s Athletics Department.

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The two men are both facing one count of bribery that was brought by a federal grand jury in 2020 and an additional count of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery and honest services wire fraud that was tacked on in 2021. The added charge alleges that the two men conspired to “deprive Harvard of its right to the honest and faithful services of its employee” by arranging for Brand to recruit Zhao’s sons.

The charges were brought against Brand and Zhao following the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal that ensnared more than 50 parents nationwide who have been convicted of securing admission into top schools with various bribes. Several Varsity Blues cases centered on the honest services charge that was added to Brand and Zhao’s indictment last year.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Lawyers representing the two men wrote in a January court filing that Zhao’s sons “were eminently qualified for admission to Harvard as fencing recruits: they were internationally competitive fencers with stellar grades and test scores who plainly met Harvard’s requirements for admission.”

The filing, which asked O’Toole to throw out the case, also argued that the government’s indictment “fails to allege that the conspiracy involved foreseeable harm to Harvard’s tangible economic interests, which, in this circuit, is an element of honest services fraud.” O’Toole, a Harvard Law School graduate who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, denied the motion to dismiss.

Prosecutors say that prior to the payments, Brand sent a text to the founder of a fencing academy Zhao’s sons attended saying Zhao “doesn’t need to take me anywhere and his boys don’t have to be great fencers.” The fencing academy head was identified only as “Co-Conspirator 1” in the indictment, though he was previously identified by the Boston Globe as Alexandre Ryjik, founder of the Virginia Academy of Fencing.

“All I need is a good incentive to recruit them[.] You can tell him that,” Brand texted, according to the indictment.

Later, in July, “Co-Conspirator 1” allegedly texted Brand asking if there was “space for[...] your favorite Chinese supporter,” according to the indictment.

Brand allegedly replied, “Of course as long as Z[h]ao cones [sic] through with the financial support,” adding, “He is my no 1 recruit as long as my future us [sic] secured.”

Hired to lead Harvard’s fencing teams in 1999, Brand oversaw a nearly miraculous turnaround of the program. Under his watch, the Crimson took home first place overall in the 2006 NCAA Championship, securing Harvard’s first national team fencing title in 72 years.

"Harvard’s success starts and ends with Brand," The Crimson reported shortly after the win.

Harvard fired Brand in 2019 after an independent inquiry found that he violated the school’s conflict of interest policy by selling his home to Zhao for above market value. The sale was first reported in 2019 by the Boston Globe.

Opening arguments in the trial are set to begin at 9 a.m. Monday at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston.

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at ryan.doannguyen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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