Ex-Harvard Coach, Dad acquitted in Admissions Bribery Case

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BOSTON (AP) — A former Harvard fencing coach was acquitted Wednesday of charges that he accepted more than $1.5 million in bribes in exchange for designating a wealthy businessman’s two sons as recruits to help secure their admission to the elite university.

Jurors found Peter Brand not guilty of conspiracy and bribery charges more than three years after a newspaper reported that Brand sold his run-down home for an inflated price to the businessman, Jie “Jack” Zhao. Zhao, Potomac, Maryland was also exonerated of the same charges.

This case was brought up in the wake of the massive college admissions corruption scandal, which saw the convictions of numerous athletic coaches, wealthy businesspeople and TV actresses, as well as other high-powered parents. While the allegations were similar, the Brand case was separate from those so-called “Operation Varsity Blues” prosecutions, which uncovered a scheme led by a corrupt admissions consultant to get kids into elite schools with rigged test scores and bogus athletic credentials.

Unlike many of the parents charged in the college admissions bribery scandal, prosecutors did not allege that the Zhao boys’ athletic credentials were fabricated or trumped up. Prosecutors suggested that the teens may have obtained Harvard admissions on their own merit. But prosecutors argued that Zhao wasn’t willing to take that risk.

Defense attorneys didn’t deny that Zhao paid too much money for Brand’s home or helped him out in other ways financially, but they said it had nothing to do with getting Zhao’s sons get into the school. They claimed that Zhao purchased the house as an investment, and that the payments were loans to help a friend in financial need. These loans were paid back after the coach received money from his mother.

Defense attorneys said the Zhao boys were exceptional students and athletes — both ranked in the top 20 nationally as fencers in high school — who didn’t need any help getting into Harvard and excelled when they got there.

In his closing argument, Brand’s attorney called it an “alleged crime in search of a victim,” saying prosecutors provided no evidence the teens took slots for more qualified recruits. Douglas Brooks, attorney, said that Zhao could have bribed Brand using a bag full of cash if he wanted. Instead, Zhao purchased the home in his own name and paid Brand’s bills using his own checks.

“The government’s bribe theory makes no sense,” Brooks said. “There are fingerprints everywhere. It is the exact opposite of trying to cover everything up.”

Prosecutors said that Brand had taken bribes from Zhao because of his financial struggles. In exchange, Brand agreed to recruit Zhao’s sons to the fencing team to give them a leg up in the cut-throat admissions process, prosecutors said.

“His boys don’t have to be great fencers. All I need is a good incentive to recruit them,” Brand wrote in a 2012 message to another man that was shown to jurors. In another message, Brand wrote that Zhao’s older son would be his “no 1 recruit” as long “my future” is “secured.”

Federal authorities’ investigation into the alleged scheme was prompted by a 2019 Boston Globe story that revealed that Zhao brought Brand’s three-bedroom home in Needham, Massachusetts, for almost $1 million — nearly double the home’s assessed value at the time — before Zhao’s younger son was admitted to Harvard and joined Brand’s team. The sale was so bizarre that city assessor wrote in his notes at the time: “MAKES NO SENSE.” Zhao never lived in the home and sold it for a steep loss 17 months later.

According to prosecutors Brand purchased a Cambridge condo for $1.3 million. Zhao paid Brand more than $150,000 for a high-end contractor to renovate it. Zhao, the CEO of a telecommunications company, made a slew of other payments for Brand to help cover bills, his son’s college tuition and other expenses, prosecutors alleged.

“Zhao didn’t want to leave his sons’ admission to chance,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mackenzie Queenin told jurors in her closing argument. “He wanted to grease the skids.”

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