Former Harvard fencing coach and Maryland businessman are both acquitted of bribery charges

A former Harvard fencing coach and a Maryland businessman were both acquitted of conspiring to get the businessman’s two sons admitted to Harvard in exchange for more than $1.5 million in bribes, authorities announced Wednesday.

Former fencing coach Peter Brand, 67, and businessman Jack Zhao, 61, were acquitted of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery and federal programs bribery — more than two years after they were indicted, according to the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.

Brand’s attorney said the verdict exonerates his client.

“We are very grateful to the jury for their service and careful consideration of the evidence,” Attorney Douglas Brooks said. “Today’s verdict exonerates Peter Brand who is 100% innocent.”

Attorney Bill Weinreb, who represents Zhao, told CNN, “We are grateful to the jury for their service and for doing justice in this case.”

Brand was Harvard’s men’s and women’s fencing coach from 1999 until 2019, when Harvard University fired him, months after he was accused of selling his home to Zhao, whose son was actively looking to apply to the school.

The sale of the Needham, Massachusetts, home in 2016 particularly drew investigators attention because Zhao bought it for almost twice what a tax document said it was worth.

The purchase of the home was among $1.5 million in payments scrutinized by prosecutors in the case, including a large payment to Brand’s charitable foundation and college tuition payments for Brand’s son.

Zhao has two sons who are fencers and were admitted to Harvard. He denied the bribery allegations and his attorney has called his children academic and fencing stars who got into Harvard on their own merit.

After the two men were acquitted, a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office in the District of Massachusetts told CNN in a statement that they fundamentally disagreed with but respected the verdict.

“This case was prosecuted for the millions of high school seniors and their families who engage in the stressful and humbling exercise of applying to college every year. That process is supposed to be a meritocracy,” the US Attorney’s Office statement read. “The instant case exposed such profound levels of privilege, entitlement and wealth abusing the college admissions process that something had to be done. And I am proud that we did.”

The case against Brand and Zhao came amid a sprawling college admissions scam, first revealed in March 2019, in which rich parents of college applicants used their wealth to cheat on standardized tests, bribe sports coaches and lie about the payments.

“Our trial team worked tirelessly and tried an excellent case. Their efforts were not in vain,” US Attorney’s Office said. “This case and all of the college admissions prosecutions have led to significant reforms at colleges and universities across the country aimed at curtailing the ability of those with means and access to flagrantly ignore the rules that apply to everyone else.”

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