Former Harvard coach and parent arrested in admissions case

Businessman accused of aiding false charity and buying coach’s house to win sons entry

November 17, 2020
Harvard University campus
Source: iStock

Federal agents have arrested a former fencing coach at Harvard University and a businessman whose sons gained admission to the Ivy League institution after he allegedly bought the coach’s house for well above its market value.

The father, Jie Zhao, of Maryland, also routed various other payments to the long-time Harvard coach, Peter Brand, for a total exceeding $1.5 million (£1.1 million) in bribes, federal prosecutors said.

Each defendant was charged with conspiracy to commit federal programme bribery, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years.

“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”, Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI agent heading the agency’s Boston office, said in a statement.

The case was first exposed by The Boston Globe in April 2019, about a month after federal prosecutors unveiled charges against dozens of wealthy parents who bribed sports coaches and other college officials to win admissions for their children to elite institutions.

The Globe’s discovery led federal investigators to find evidence of a more expansive operation beginning in 2012, in which Mr Zhao, the chief executive of a telecommunications company, allegedly donated $1 million to a charity that personally benefited Mr Brand.

Mr Brand in turn promised to help Mr Zhao’s two sons win admission to Harvard as fencing recruits regardless of their ability in the sport, prosecutors said.

That practice fit the pattern found in the larger college admissions scandal investigation, where parents conspired with coaches in tennis, soccer, sailing, rowing and water polo, at institutions that included the University of Southern California, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Texas at Austin, plus Georgetown, Stanford, Wake Forest and Yale universities.

As with the main investigation, federal authorities emphasised their determination to protect honest students from unfair practices in college admissions, while overlooking legal methods such as direct donations to universities that often increase wealth-based disparities in access to elite institutions.

“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,” Mr Bonavolonta said in his statement.

“Millions of teenagers strive for college admission every year,” US Attorney Andrew Lelling, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, said in his statement. “We will do our part to make that playing field as level as we possibly can.”

Harvard fired Mr Brand in July 2019 after conducting its own investigation of the 20-year coach. Before the Globe uncovered the case, Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, suggested the university was not caught in the larger college admission scandal because it had better protections to guard against rogue sports coaches.

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