Harvard University’s former fencing coach and a telecom CEO are facing a jury over charges that they corrupted the admissions process in a case with echoes of the “Varsity Blues” bribery scandal.

Jie “Jack” Zhao, chief executive officer of iTalk Global Communications Inc., is accused of bribing coach Peter Brand to “facilitate” getting his two sons into Harvard by having them designated fencing recruits. Prosecutors claim Zhao paid more than $1.5 million to Brand, both directly and by overpaying for the coach’s Boston-area house, paying off his car and covering some of his son’s college bills. 

“What these defendants did was criminal,” federal prosecutor Ian Stearns said Monday in opening arguments in federal court in Boston. “They participated in a scheme to get Zhao’s sons into Harvard.”

Brand, 69, and Zhao, 63, have both claimed they’ve done nothing wrong and insist Zhao’s sons earned admission to Harvard on their own academic and athletic merits. Zhao’s lawyers also contend he has a history of being generous lending money to friends and say he didn’t befriend the coach until after his eldest son was already admitted.

The men each face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors plan to call fencing academy founder and alleged co-conspirator Alexandre Ryjik as their main witness. According to the government, Zhao initially made a $1 million donation to Ryjik’s National Fencing Foundation in late 2013, with the understanding Ryjik would donate the funds to Brand’s family foundation. When Ryjik ultimately kept 90% of the money for himself, Zhao began making payments directly to benefit Brand, according to the indictment.

In defense opening arguments, Brand’s lawyer, Douglas Brooks, took aim at Ryjik’s credibility, casting the cooperating witness as a liar who previously denied there were any bribes but changed his story after he was caught stealing from his own foundation.

“We are here today because the government chose to ignore the real crimes committed by Alex Ryjik and chase headlines through a false narrative,” Brooks told the jury.

Harvard Harmed?
A key point at trial will be whether actions by Brand and Zhao harmed Harvard. Defense lawyers say the Ivy League school wasn’t deprived of admissions slots, scholarship funds or fencers, as both of Zhao’s sons excelled athletically and academically there.

Eric Zhao, the older son, was co-captain of Harvard’s fencing team his junior year and was named second-team All-Ivy that same 2016-2017 season, according to the college’s sports stats page. His younger brother, Edward, also competed for Harvard but racked up lesser stats, according to the athletics site. The defense says in court filings that both boys had “stellar grades” and test scores that qualified them for admission to Harvard, where the family paid their sons’ full tuitions.

“You will not see any other evidence that there was any other fencer out there that should have been recruited instead of them,” Zhao’s lawyer, Michael Packard, said in his opening statement.

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