Former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand and Harvard College parent Jie “Jack” Zhao will go on trial in December on charges they allegedly conspired to secure admission to Harvard for Zhao’s two sons with bribes totaling $1.5 million.
Brand, whom the University dismissed in 2019 for violating Harvard’s conflict of interest policy, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2020. The December 5 trial date, announced earlier this month, will come more than two years after Brand and Zhao were first arrested on bribery charges in November 2020.
A grand jury returned a revised indictment against Brand and Zhao in June 2021, with the added charge of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, alleging that the two devised a bribery scheme with the intent to “deprive Harvard of its right to the honest and faithful services of its employee” through interstate communications.
The honest services charge was central to several of the unrelated Operation Varsity Blues admissions bribery cases. Actress Felicity Huffman, among the most prominent defendants charged in that investigation, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud in 2019.
Kevin J. O’Brien ’74, a partner at the law firm Ford O’Brien Landy, said the recent college admissions trials have centered around two types of fraud: defrauding a university of an admissions slot, which attorneys have argued is valuable property, and depriving it of an employee’s “honest and faithful services,” as in the Harvard case.
“You expect — and you’re paying for — a coach to exercise his or her best judgment in admitting recruits and granting scholarships,” O’Brien said.
Brand’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.
Attorneys representing Brand and Zhao disputed the additional charge and jointly moved to dismiss it in January, arguing that even if the allegations were true, the conduct described would not constitute fraud against Harvard.
“The Superseding Indictment does not allege that Harvard was deprived of money, nor could it, because the Zhaos paid full tuition,” the defense attorneys wrote. “And it does not allege that Harvard was deprived of admission slots reserved for qualified student-athletes, nor could it, because the Zhaos were eminently qualified for admission to Harvard as fencing recruits.”
Judge George A. O’Toole denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the fraud charge on July 7.
The indictment references a text message Brand allegedly sent to the founder of a fencing academy that Zhao’s sons attended as one of several “overt acts” committed to advance a bribery scheme between Brand and Zhao.
“Jack doesn’t need to take me anywhere and his boys don’t have to be great fencers,” Brand allegedly texted. “All I need is a good incentive to recruit them[.] You can tell him that[.]”
Though the fencing academy founder was referred to only as “Co-Conspirator 1” in court documents, he was previously identified by the Boston Globe as Alexandre Ryjik, who started the Virginia Academy of Fencing in 1991.
Zhao’s defense team declined to comment.
The text message and other communications that the government says constitute wire fraud were first revealed in a November affidavit from an Internal Revenue Service special agent who investigated Brand, Zhao, and others in connection with the case.
The government alleged that Zhao donated $1 million intended for Brand to a fencing charity founded by Co-Conspirator 1, and also paid for Brand’s car, mortgage, home renovations, and part of Brand’s son’s college tuition. Zhao also allegedly purchased Brand’s Needham, Mass., home for significantly above its market value through his company, iTalk Global Communications, Inc. The purchase raised suspicion from the city assessor and triggered an independent review which ultimately resulted in Brand’s dismissal.
According to the indictment, both of Zhao’s sons received likely letters — early positive indicators of admission for prospective students — from Harvard, which the government alleges were facilitated by Brand’s recruitment of them to the fencing team. Brand allegedly failed to disclose any of the payments he received from Zhao to Harvard when he recruited Zhao’s sons, who have both since graduated from the College.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment.
The scandal was first brought to light by the Globe in 2019.
O’Brien said that prosecutors in the Brand trial would likely avoid some issues that were present in many of the Varsity Blues cases — namely, that none of the alleged bribe money was paid to Harvard, instead going to Brand directly or through associated charities. According to O’Brien, this would make it difficult for the defense to claim that Harvard was not harmed by the alleged bribery.
“You can’t argue that they were the beneficiaries of the scheme instead of the victims,” O’Brien said.
—Staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newskingdollar.