Harvard probes sale of fencing coach’s house to parent of a recruit

by Samuel Abasi Posted on April 5th, 2019

Harvard is investigating the University’s head fencing coach after he allegedly engaged in real estate and non-profit transactions involving the family of current and former students on the team, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay wrote in an email on Thursday.

Peter Brand, Harvard’s head men and women’s fencing coach, sold his Needham, Mass. house to iTalk Global Communications, Inc. co-founder Jie Zhao in 2016 for hundreds of thousands of dollars above its valuation, the Boston Globe reported Thursday. Zhao’s younger son, a sophomore, was admitted to Harvard shortly after and is currently a member of the fencing team. His older son, who was also a member of the fencing team, graduated from Harvard in 2018.

Harvard was notified of the allegations against Brand on Monday, according to Gay’s email. The University has since opened an “independent review.”

Zhao told the Globe he decided to buy Brand’s house after he heard Brand complain about his long commute to campus. He denied that Brand sought him out for the purchase, calling it a “good investment.” Zhao never lived in the house, and he sold it at a loss of more than $300,000 just 17 months after first purchasing it.

One week after Zhao purchased Brand’s Needham residence, Brand and his wife allegedly paid $1.3 million for a Cambridge home, roughly $300,000 above its asking price.

Zhao and Brand did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Gay’s announcement about the independent investigation comes in the wake of a nationwide admissions scandal in which 50 people have been charged for participating in a scheme involving bribing university officials and falsifying test scores to earn the children of wealthy entrepreneurs and celebrities entrance to top universities. Harvard was not one of the universities implicated.

Gay wrote in her email that it is the University’s “current understanding” that the allegations against Brand are not related to the scandal and that Harvard has admissions protocols meant to safeguard the process from interference. She noted that all athletes must be interviewed and approved by the College’s roughly 40-person admissions committee.

Zhao and Brand are also tenuously connected through a separate set of non-profit financial transactions that took place around the time his older son, who was also on the fencing team, was admitted to the College. Zhao told the Globe he donated $1 million to the National Fencing Foundation of Washington D.C. in 2013, the largest donation by far that the foundation had ever received. That same year, Brand and his wife formed a non-profit foundation in Delaware which received $100,000 from the National Fencing Foundation.

Zhao’s older son said in an interview with The Crimson that he was unaware of the donations until this week and has not heard from the University or outside counsel about the investigation. He pointed out that he was admitted to the College through the Early Action program in December 2013, months before he says his father’s donation “went through.”

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that the University is “committed” to upholding the “integrity of our recruitment practices.”

Brand could have violated National Collegiate Athletic Association rules with the acceptance of that donation, depending on how he used it and whether he took the requisite steps to record the contribution, according to Rick Allen, founder of Informed Athlete, which helps prospective college athletes navigate NCAA rules.

“There’s potential there that that could end up being a violation of the rules regarding coaches reporting and accepting outside income if he personally benefited from that money,” he said in an interview with The Crimson. “It would have to depend on whether the money was reported and how it was utilized.”

Though Allen said Zhao’s purchase of the house would likely not constitute an NCAA violation, Zhao’s decision to buy plane tickets for multiple members of the fencing team could run afoul of regulations around “impermissible benefits.”

Allen cautioned, though, that it likely depended on whether the other students on the flights were longtime friends of Zhao’s sons and if the trips were for competition or purely for leisure.

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