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Ex-Harvard Fencing Coach ‘Made the Difference’ in Admissions Outcomes of Zhao Brothers, Witness Says

Former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand outside the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse.
Former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand outside the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse. By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen, Carrie Hsu, and Leah J. Teichholtz, Crimson Staff Writers

BOSTON — A former Harvard admissions officer told a federal jury on Friday that the school’s ex-fencing coach, Peter Brand, “made the difference” in the admissions outcomes of a wealthy Maryland businessman’s two sons.

Brand, who was fired by Harvard in 2019, is facing trial alongside telecommunications executive Jie “Jack” Zhao for allegedly accepting more than $1.5 million in bribes to get Zhao’s sons into Harvard College as fencing recruits.

Prosecutors say Brand accepted an array of kickbacks from Zhao in exchange for getting his sons into Harvard. As part of the alleged scheme, Zhao purchased Brand’s home at a premium, made college tuition payments for Brand’s son, and covered the cost of Brand’s new sports car.

During the fifth day of trial on Friday, former Harvard admissions officer David L. Evans, who retired in 2020, told jurors that he would have had reservations about admitting Zhao’s two sons — Eric Y. Zhao ’18 and Edward Y. Zhao ’21 — without Brand vouching for their fencing prowess.

Evans said Brand’s comments about Edward Zhao were “the clincher” in his admissions decision.

“It made the difference,” he told Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen E. Frank ’95.

When reviewing Eric Zhao’s application, Evans wrote that he “would have no objection” if his athletic talents were “truly special,” according to notes presented by prosecutors on Friday. “If not, I would pause,” he wrote in 2016 when reviewing the application.

Defense attorneys sought to show that Zhao’s two sons got into the College on their own merits, reading from their high school recommendation letters and comparing their grade point averages and test scores to the rest of their respective high school classes.

Zhao’s lawyer, William D. Weinreb, rattled off highlights from the notes of Edward Zhao’s 2016 interview with a Harvard admissions officer, who wrote Zhao “would be a great fit” at the College as “someone who could be friends with absolutely anyone.”

“This does sound like exactly the kind of student Harvard would want, right?” Weinreb asked.

“Yes,” Evans replied.

Jurors also heard on Friday from a Needham town employee who raised alarm when Zhao purchased Brand’s 1,364-square-foot home for almost twice its assessed value.

Jie "Jack" Zhao, left, exits the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston alongside his attorney, William D. Weinreb.
Jie "Jack" Zhao, left, exits the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston alongside his attorney, William D. Weinreb. By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen

Chip Davis, the city’s former chief assessor, said the sale price was “very surprising.”

“Even if there’s a 5-10 percent change” between the assessed price and the sale price, “we go and inspect,” he said. “This was dramatically higher than that.”

After the sale, Davis said, he knocked on the door of Brand’s home for an in-person inspection. He found that the house’s condition suggested its value was “pretty close” to the 2015 assessed value of $549,300 — rather than the sale price of $989,500.

“I was standing on the porch at the door, hoping that the overhang over the porch didn’t fall because it looked a little shaky,” said Davis, who had assessed homes in Needham since 1992.

In his May 2016 notes, Davis was perplexed by the sale price, according to an exhibit shown to jurors Friday.

“Sold to buyer from Virginia for 990k??? Place is vintage 1960s in bad shape???” Davis wrote. “Makes no sense.”

In fall 2017, Zhao sold the home for $665,000, taking a 32 percent loss on the transaction. Davis returned for another visit triggered by the sale price. “Makes no sense,” he wrote again in his notes.

“Generally, when someone sells a house in Needham, they make a profit rather than take a huge loss,” Davis said on Friday.

Brand’s relationship with Zhao was first called into question when the Boston Globe published an investigation about the property sale in 2019.

Weinreb, Zhao’s attorney, suggested Zhao may not have known how to assess the house’s worth and noted property values in Needham change year to year.

“You don’t know [Zhao], do you? You certainly don’t know whether he knew how to look at a house and assess its condition,” Weinreb said to Davis.

After selling their Needham home to Zhao, Brand and his wife, Jacqueline Phillips, bought a condominium in Cambridge for $1.3 million in May 2016. Zhao helped pay for renovations to the new home, according to former S+H Construction President Douglas Hanna, who testified Friday afternoon.

The trial is set to resume at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

Correction: December 13, 2022:

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jie “Jack” Zhao purchased Peter Brand’s home in Needham for $980,500. In fact, the sale price was $989,500.

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

—Staff Writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at carrie.hsu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieHsu9.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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