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BOSTON — The wife of businessman and Harvard College parent Jie “Jack” Zhao told a federal jury on Friday that she and her husband were pressured into making a $1 million payment that prosecutors claim was a bribe to secure their sons’ admission to Harvard.
Zhao’s wife, Ping Hu, testified Friday that Alexandre Ryjik — the self-described “middleman” in an alleged bribery scheme between Zhao and former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand — intimidated the couple into making a $1 million payment to Ryjik’s nonprofit.
Ryjik, a government witness, told jurors during the opening day of trial that he used his charity, the National Fencing Foundation, to funnel payments from Zhao to Brand.
Prosecutors allege that Zhao paid more than $1.5 million in bribes to Brand for the recruitment of Zhao’s sons to Harvard’s fencing program. Zhao and Brand were indicted on federal bribery charges in 2020.
Hu told jurors that Ryjik, who coached the couple’s sons at his Virginia-based fencing academy, asked Zhao and Hu for a $1 million “bonus” on three separate occasions. Hu added that she and Zhao believed he would withdraw support for their sons during the college recruitment process if they failed to pay him.
“We were scared of him,” Hu said of Ryjik during her six-hour testimony Friday.
Ultimately, Zhao transferred $1 million to Ryjik’s National Fencing Foundation in February 2013. Zhao, who served as vice president of the foundation, resigned just three months later, in May.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen E. Frank ’95 asked Hu about this timeline, seeking to show that Zhao left the foundation so there would be “no connection” between him and future donations to the Peter Brand Foundation.
Ryjik’s nonprofit donated only $100,000 to the newly-established Peter Brand Foundation in October 2013. A divorce attorney for Ryjik told jurors on the fourth day of trial that Zhao asked for his $1 million back after Ryjik refused to transfer the full amount.
But Hu said the couple never asked for the money to be repaid, saying that they donate to nonprofits to “help people.”
Throughout the ninth day of trial, defense attorneys sought to portray a series of payments by Zhao on behalf of Brand — that prosecutors suggested were bribes between the two men — as personal loans. Hu testified that Zhao had a long history of generosity toward others.
Hu told jurors that Zhao gave a $20,000 loan to a college friend in 1987, which at the time constituted “99 percent of our savings in the bank.”
“In Chinese culture, if someone came to borrow money from you, that means they think you are friends. They trust you,” Hu said. Refusing to loan money, she added, meant, “You are not friends. You do not trust them.”
Hu said Zhao loaned $100,000 to a tennis coach in 2011 to establish a new tennis center. William D. Weinreb, an attorney for Zhao, presented corresponding checks for the transaction.
Prosecutors pressed Hu on Zhao’s May 2016 purchase of Brand’s old home in Needham, Mass. for $989,500 — nearly twice its assessed value of $543,000 — and subsequent sale in July 2017 for a $324,000 loss.
Hu said Zhao bought the house as an investment and hired a realtor to help them rent out the property, but he ultimately sold it when the realtor told them the house required too much work to maintain.
“We were very disappointed,” Hu said of the net loss. “But we have to take it.”
Hu described Zhao as “very generous and soft-hearted,” touting his philanthropic nature throughout her testimony on Friday.
“Have you ever met anyone more generous than Jack?” Weinreb asked Hu.
“I am,” Hu replied, prompting laughter throughout the courtroom.
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