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Épée the Price: FBI Arrests Former Harvard Fencing Coach for ‘Corruption in College Admissions’

Peter Brand

Federal authorities announced on Monday that a 67-year-old former fencing coach at Harvard and a 61-year-old Maryland businessman were the latest individuals arrested and charged in the massive college admissions prosecution known as “Operation Varsity Blues. Peter Brand is accused of conspiring with Jie “Jack” Zhao to get Zhao’s son into Harvard in exchange for more than $1.5 million in bribes.

U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said Monday that this was the latest domino to fall in his office’s “long-standing effort to expose and deter corruption in college admissions.”

“Millions of teenagers strive for college admission every year. We will do our part to make that playing field as level as we possibly can,” he said. Both defendants are scheduled to appear in court today.

The news from the feds included statements from the U.S. Attorney’s office, and from special agents with the FBI and the IRS. The bribery allegations focus on events as far back as eight years ago:

It is alleged that in or about May 2012, Brand told a co-conspirator, “Jack doesn’t need to take me anywhere and his boys don’t have to be great fencers. All I need is a good incentive to recruit them[.] You can tell him that[.]” In February 2013, as part of the alleged scheme, Zhao made a purported donation of $1 million to a fencing charity operated by a co-conspirator. Zhao’s older son was admitted to Harvard as a fencing recruit in December 2013, and matriculated in the fall of 2014. Shortly thereafter, the charity passed $100,000 on to the Peter Brand Foundation, a charitable entity established by Brand and his spouse. Thereafter, Zhao began making payments to, or for the benefit of, Brand.

In total, Zhao made $1.5 million in payments to Brand, or for Brand’s personal benefit, even as Brand recruited Zhao’s younger son to the Harvard fencing team. Zhao allegedly paid for Brand’s car, made college tuition payments for Brand’s son, paid the mortgage on Brand’s Needham residence, and later purchased the residence for well above its market value, thus allowing Brand to purchase a more expensive residence in Cambridge that Zhao then paid to renovate. Zhao’s younger son matriculated to Harvard in 2017. The complaint alleges that Brand did not disclose the payments to Harvard when recruiting Zhao’s sons.

Law&Crime previously reported that Brand, longtime Harvard University fencing coach for both the men’s and women’s teams, was being scrutinized by a federal grand jury due, at least in part, to the sale of his home.

The Harvard Crimson noted that the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) subpoenaed officials in Needham officials back in April, in order to gather more information about the 2016 sale of Brand’s home to a parent of two sons who would go on to be members of Brand’s fencing team. That parent was Mr. Zhao.

CNN reported that the USAO subpoenaed the Needham Board of Assessors to obtain documents about the property formerly owned by Brand. Brand sold the property for “almost twice what a tax document said it was worth,” per CNN. While the home was valued at roughly $550,000, Zhao purchased it for $989,500 — only to sell it within two years for around $300,000 less than he paid.

Harvard University previously announced that it was opening an investigation of its own.

Brand’s Harvard bio said that he led the men’s and women’s fencing teams to “their most successful era in school history since he joined the Crimson staff prior to the 1999-2000 season.”

He is the seventh coach in the 118-year history of Harvard fencing and just the second to lead the women’s squad. Brand has compiled a 212-88 overall record and a 55-37 mark in the Ivy League with the men’s team. On the women’s side, he owns a 258-75-1 overall record and a 69-41 mark against Ancient Eight opponents.

In that short time, Brand has delivered Harvard its first NCAA team championship, a combined four Intercollegiate Fencing Association three-weapon titles, two IFA six-weapon championships, and a combined 12 Ivy League titles – four by the women and eight by the men. He has also coached 78 All-Americans in his time behind the Harvard bench.

[Image via Harvard University screengrab]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.