The house at 212 Forest Street in Needham, Massachusetts looked nearly identical to every other upper-middle-class colonial in the Boston suburbs. So when it sold in May 2016 at nearly a million dollars — well above the three-bedroom home’s assessed value of $549,300 — the town assessor was so confused that he wrote in his official notes: “makes no sense.”
Reporting from the Boston Globe now provides a little more clarity into the not-so-rational purchase. According to the paper, the buyer, Jie Zhao — who “never lived a day in the Needham house” — had a son who was interested in applying to Harvard and fencing for the school team. Zhao purchased the home at a several hundred-thousand-dollar markup from Harvard’s fencing coach, Peter Brand. Zhao’s son got into Harvard, and joined the fencing team, and 17 months after his initial purchase, Zhao sold the house at a $324,500 loss
In interviews with the Globe, Zhao, a telecommunications executive, claimed that the purchase was not constructed to get his son into Harvard. Instead, according to the Globe, it was “an investment and favor for Brand, the coach whom he said had become his close friend.”
“I want to help Peter Brand because I feel so sorry he has to travel so much to go to fencing practice,” Zhao told the Globe. Needham is about 12 miles from the Harvard campus in Cambridge. Coach Brand currently has a family apartment in East Cambridge.
Zhao and Brand may have another financial link, related to Zhao’s elder son, who is also a fencer. According to the Globe, the businessman donated $1,000,000 to the nonprofit National Fencing Foundation in 2013. (In the four years prior, the most the group received in total contributions in any year was $25,000.) As the Globe reports:
Also in 2013, Brand and his wife, Jacqueline Phillips, incorporated the Peter Brand Foundation in Delaware, records show. It was granted tax-exempt status by the IRS in July of 2014, but did not see a significant infusion of money until autumn of 2014 when the National Fencing Foundation cut it a check for $100,000, tax filings show. That fall, Zhao’s older son, who had a sterling high school academic and fencing record, started at Harvard.
Zhao told the Globe that he did not have control over the grant to Brand’s foundation, nor did he know about it. And Harvard officials state that they first heard of the Needham real-estate steal this week, when the paper approached them with the information. The school has retained outside counsel, who they did not name, to independently investigate the relationship between Zhao and Brand. “We are committed to ensuring the integrity of our recruitment practices,” Harvard College spokeswoman Rachael Dane told the Globe. The school also released a statement, from dean Claudine Gay, who oversees athletics, saying that “the new allegation that came to light this week is against one individual regarding transactions that pertain to one family. I say this not to minimize the concerns that this allegation raises. I take them very seriously.”
Up to this point, Harvard has been exempt from the admissions scandal roiling other top universities, although the Ivy has faced renewed criticism over practices like a father pledging $2.5 million in a roundabout effort to get an academically unimpressive kid into the school — as Charles Kushner allegedly did to ensure his son Jared’s admission in 1999. Though Harvard is not directly implicated in the FBI sting that resulted in felony charges for parents like actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, the school’s name will likely be mentioned in the larger conversation over rich families buying their way into the nation’s top schools. The connection is made stronger by the importance of coaches in the FBI investigation, who were allegedly willing to accept “consulting” fees in order to secure admission for the student-athlete children of ethically-flexible, upper-class parents.
Remarkably, the Globe was tipped off to the relationship between the businessman and the fencing coach after a family looking to purchase the house in 2017 saw how Zhao made an exorbitant offer for the Needham home, and thought there “might have been some funny business.” After the college admissions scandal broke in March, the family — playing a role somewhere between nosy neighbor and concerned citizen — called it in to the paper.
This post has been updated to reflect that Jie Zhao purchased the Needham house from Peter Brand.