CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When Jie Zhao, a wealthy Maryland businessman, wanted to get his two sons into Harvard, federal prosecutors said on Monday, he made connections with the school’s longtime fencing coach, Peter Brand, who was having financial trouble.
Over a five-year period, according to prosecutors, Mr. Zhao paid for Mr. Brand’s car. He made college tuition payments for the coach’s son. He paid off the mortgage on Mr. Brand’s house in a Boston suburb, and eventually purchased the house for an inflated price. After Mr. Brand bought a more expensive residence in Cambridge, Mr. Zhao paid to renovate it.
In return, prosecutors said in a criminal complaint, Mr. Brand recruited Mr. Zhao’s sons to the Harvard fencing team, helping to secure their admission. Altogether, the payments to the fencing coach amounted to $1.5 million, prosecutors said.
On Monday, Mr. Zhao, the chief executive of a telecommunications company, and Mr. Brand were arrested and charged with bribery. They face potential sentences of up to five years in prison.
All recruited athletes at Harvard are vetted by the full admissions committee, which has roughly 40 members. However, recruited athletes are far more likely to be admitted than nonathletes with similar academic records.
Mr. Zhao’s older son graduated from Harvard in 2018, and his younger son is a senior. Asked if there would be consequences for either, a spokeswoman for Harvard, Rachael Dane, said that both “were admitted under Harvard’s whole-person admissions process,” referring to their vetting by the admissions committee and the fact that they were interviewed by either admissions officers or alumni interviewers.
Lawyers for Mr. Brand and Mr. Zhao said the businessman’s sons earned their spots.
“The students were academic and fencing stars,” Douglas S. Brooks, Mr. Brand’s lawyer, said in a statement. “Coach Brand did nothing wrong in connection with their admission to Harvard. He looks forward to the truth coming out in court.”
Mr. Zhao’s lawyer, William D. Weinreb, called the Zhao brothers “academic stars in high school and internationally competitive fencers who obtained admission to Harvard on their own merit,” adding, “Mr. Zhao adamantly denies these charges.”
The brothers came to Harvard as lower-ranked recruits than the typical fencer at the school, whose men’s team has perennially been one of the best in the country, recruiting U.S. National team athletes or Olympians like Eli Dershwitz. Many Harvard fencers are ranked in the top 10 in the junior U.S. rankings, but the Zhaos do not appear to have cracked the top 50, and in some years were not ranked at all.
Harvard fired Mr. Brand last year as universities across the country scrambled to respond to a sweeping federal investigation of college admissions fraud, which raised questions about athletic recruitment and whether coaches have enriched themselves by essentially selling recruiting slots.
The United States attorney’s office in Boston charged more than 50 people in the case, among them the Hollywood celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and prominent business people.
Harvard was not implicated in the case, known as Operation Varsity Blues, but it began investigating Mr. Brand after a series of articles in The Boston Globe brought to light the strange circumstances surrounding Mr. Zhao’s purchase of Mr. Brand’s house.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Zhao in fact spent even more in pursuit of getting his sons into Harvard — roughly $2.4 million — because a co-conspirator ended up taking $900,000 of Mr. Zhao’s money.
In the criminal complaint, prosecutors said that Mr. Zhao wanted his oldest son, an accomplished high school fencer, to go to Harvard, but that in 2012, Mr. Brand was initially “noncommittal” about recruiting him. The coach told the co-conspirator, the founder of a fencing academy who coached Mr. Zhao’s sons in high school, that he needed a “good incentive.”
Prosecutors did not name the co-conspirator, who lives in Virginia, but said he had provided information to the government in the hope of receiving immunity.
Mr. Zhao’s first proposal was to make a contribution to Harvard’s fencing team, prosectors said the co-conspirator told them, but Mr. Brand rejected that idea because he wanted to personally benefit. So instead, prosectors said, Mr. Zhao and the co-conspirator hatched a plan in which the businessman would donate $1 million to a fencing foundation, which would then be passed to a charity run by Mr. Brand.
But the co-conspirator, who ran the foundation, kept most of the money, prosecutors said — including more than $31,000 that he spent on his own son’s Harvard tuition.
After that, prosecutors said, Mr. Zhao began finding ways to benefit Mr. Brand directly, including paying for his car, his son’s tuition at Penn State, and his sewer and water bill. In 2016, Mr. Zhao bought Mr. Brand’s house in Needham, Mass., for $989,500, more than $440,000 above its assessed value.
The inflated price prompted an on-site inspection from the city assessor, who wrote in his notes that the sale “makes no sense,” prosecutors said.
Some months after the sale, Mr. Zhao’s younger son, Edward, was admitted to Harvard as a fencing recruit, as his brother, Eric, had been three years before. Eric Zhao was a co-captain of the Harvard team and was named second-team All-Ivy. His brother has fenced sparingly as a substitute.
David W. Chen contributed reporting from New York.