Metro

At Harvard, an admissions scandal that unfolded out in the open

The two coaches plotted over text messages with winking-face emojis, hatching a clean and simple scheme. The middleman was so confident — so delighted at his good fortune — that he allegedly bragged about it publicly. One million dollars to get a kid into Harvard! Can you believe it?

The money changed hands right out in the open: a series of donations, a land deal, a real estate purchase. Behind the scenes, they were frank about finances and favors, calling each other “brother,” “boss,” and “genius.”

The country has been transfixed by Operation Varsity Blues, a sprawling college admissions scandal winding its way through federal court in Boston in which mega-rich parents and Hollywood celebrities paid a California college consultant to fake resumes and test scores and get their children admitted into top schools.

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This is the story of a different kind of college recruitment scam — one born in the rarefied world of elite fencing, where the gulf between the rich and the rest yawns wide, and where some wealthy parents step through a not-so-secret side door to the Ivy League. It, too, is the subject of a federal probe that could draw Harvard more deeply into the admissions scandal’s glare.

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The lives of three powerful men intersected at the threshold of that side door. Peter Brand, the university’s fencing coach in the twilight of his career, planning for retirement but dreaming of a windfall. Alexandre Ryjik, the Soviet-trained head of the “World’s Largest Fencing School” who came from nothing and loved the high life in America. And Jie “Jack” Zhao, the Chinese millionaire who would do anything to see his two beloved sons succeed.

This was big money. This was Harvard. And they almost got away with it.

Initial reports

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Peter Brand’s former house, which Jie “Jack” Zhao bought.

The Globe began reporting on the extraordinary financial maneuvers by Brand, Ryjik, and Zhao in the spring, starting with Zhao’s purchase of the Harvard coach’s Needham home at an inflated price — at a time when his younger son was seeking admission to Harvard. Then there were the fencing coaches’ charities, fattened with Zhao’s cash, and the quiet Virginia land deal.

The stories pitched Harvard into the roiling national conversation over the role money and corruption play in college acceptances, and thrust the low-profile sport of fencing into an ugly spotlight. Harvard opened an investigation and fired Brand; the US attorney’s office for Massachusetts convened a federal grand jury.

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Harvard has stressed that its admissions policies are strenuous, and recruitment is no guarantee of admission — a 40-person committee makes the final decision on applicants, even athletes. “Harvard Athletics is committed to upholding the integrity of our athletics program,” the athletic director said in a statement when Brand was fired.

Brand, Ryjik, and Zhao have steadfastly denied wrongdoing. All three declined to answer specific questions for this story. Brand did not comment at all; Ryjik’s attorney said he was proud of coaching the Zhao boys and never “engaged in any improprieties.” Zhao offered to fly to Boston in October to sit down with a reporter and “explain the whole thing,” but then decided against it. Instead, he issued a statement through his attorney saying he’d long been a generous supporter of fencing, and that his sons — both of whom graduated high school as accomplished fencers with nearly perfect grades and SAT scores — had gotten to Harvard on their own.

But a new trove of documents, and interviews with people who watched everything unfold in real time, reveal, for the first time, the inside story of the alleged scheme, right down to the wild boasts that appear, at least now, to have been true.

A love of fencing

Like any parent, Jack Zhao wanted the best for his two sons. He secured them every advantage.

He sent them to Washington, D.C.’s St Albans School, a private all-boys institution overlooking the US Capitol — where tuition this year runs as high as $67,000. He took them on international trips with their friends, and to galas where they rubbed elbows with celebrities. When his two “nerdy boys” found a love for fencing, he paid for them to train with the best.

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After all, Zhao — bespectacled and ambitious and deeply proud of his Chinese roots — had truly made it in America, and why shouldn’t his children? He had arrived from Beijing in 1985 to attend the University of Cincinnati, and gone on to cofound iTalk Global Communications Inc., a telecommunications business that he and his partners sold their majority stake in for $80 million in 2012. He continued as CEO, and positioned himself as a champion of Chinese culture, partnering with sports stars like basketball hero Yao Ming. “Sports can truly help us enter mainstream American society,” Zhao proclaimed at one event.

‘It’s extremely difficult to get people who are academically viable and who are also excellent fencers. But the most important thing is character.’

Fencing, Zhao told a crowd at an event celebrating Olympic fencing champion Sheng Li in 2012, was another front in the Chinese fight for life and future in a foreign land.

In Virginia, his sons wielded sabers.

They were in exclusive company. There are somewhere around 7,000 high school fencers in America, compared with almost a million high school basketball players. Basketball courts dot landscapes of towns and cities rich and poor across America, and the barriers to entry are low: sneakers, a ball, gym shorts. Fencing pistes — the long, narrow mats where athletes lunge back and forth in electrical vests that pick up the too-fast-for-the-naked-eye touches of their elegant blades — can be found mostly in private clubs. Many fencers who want to climb high enough in the rankings for colleges to take notice travel to tournaments all over the world.

The sport evolved into its modern form after the French courtiers of Louis XIV began carrying light, short swords to suit their silk stockings and brocaded jackets, and in many ways today, it remains a sport of the aristocracy and conspicuous wealth.

Jack Zhao’s largesse didn’t raise alarms because it blended right in.

An elite coach

The Virginia Academy of Fencing, in Springfield, Virginia, which Jack Zhao helped purchase. His kids trained there. Coaches there helped introduce Zhao to Harvard's coach. The academy is one of the country's largest fencing academies, run by a Russian fencer who has boasted about his ability to get kids into top colleges. Thursday, April 25, 2019. John Boal/for the Boston Globe
John Boal for the Boston Globe
The Virginia Academy of Fencing, in Springfield, Virginia.

The banners of Harvard, Penn, Yale, and Dartmouth fluttered auspiciously from the ceiling of the Virginia Academy of Fencing, where Zhao began taking his older boy, then about 8 or 9 years old, around 2003 or 2004. The academy is hunkered down in a sprawling, low-slung brick building on a suburban street in Springfield, Va.

handout
Alexandre Ryjik.

It was run by Alexandre Ryjik, a big and boisterous saber coach who often touted the Master of Sport in Fencing of the USSR he said he earned at 17.

At first, Ryjik didn’t think Zhao’s older son would amount to much as an athlete, Zhao said. But then the boy started winning, and Zhao started paying for Ryjik’s business class flights to fencing tournaments in Poland, Hungary, Germany. Ryjik trained both Zhao’s sons.

By the late 2000s, Ryjik was flush with cash from training fees and talking a lot about Zhao, said his estranged wife, Kathleen Ryjik, whom he started dating around 2007. The couple is currently in the midst of an acrimonious divorce.

“He would say very often that Jack Zhao was very important to him,” said Kathleen Ryjik. “He just talked about Jack Zhao being the money behind everything [he] wanted to do for the rest of his life.”

When they first met, she said, Alexandre Ryjik was rough around the edges. He was loud and politically incorrect. He told her he’d come to America at 19 after growing up poor in Soviet Russia, where success depended on who you knew and how you used them.

With the Virginia Academy of Fencing, which he founded in 1991, he had found success. And with Jack Zhao paying him handsomely to train his boys, he had money to burn. Kathleen Ryjik, who loved style and design, helped him pick out new clothes and accessories.

“Once he knew what Gucci shoes were, he wouldn’t wear anything else,” she said. “He has a Rolex, he has a Range Rover. Everything he has is status, status, status.”

In 2009, Alexandre Ryjik, buoyant with dreams of blessings to come, did two things that would surface a decade later in a darker light.

He started a charity called the National Fencing Foundation, which was dedicated to helping at-risk children fence and running a fencing tournament and, for the first few years at least, chugged along quietly and took in very little money.

And he began bragging publicly about a deal he said Zhao had made him, according to two people who heard his claims separately, and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. One of the people documented their concerns about the boasts in a computer file that was shared with the Globe. Ryjik and Zhao both denied impropriety.

Rumors of the deal started to spread in the small suburban fencing community.

“Can you believe it?” Ryjik allegedly asked one of the two people, fairly bursting with the good news. “Zhao said he will pay me $1 million to get his kid into Harvard.”

Harvard connection

To hold up his end of the deal, Ryjik would need the help of a friend: legendary Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand, who had arrived at the university in 1999 and propelled its beleaguered team from the bottom of the Ivy League rankings to the top, sending fencers to the Olympics and earning a cascade of “coach of the year” accolades. Brand coached Ryjik’s own son, who started at Harvard in 2011.

NCAA Photos via Getty Images
Peter Brand.

Brand, who was raised on an Israeli kibbutz and immigrated to America at 13 years old, inspired fierce devotion among his athletes. He prized fencers with team spirit over raw athleticism in his aggressive recruitment efforts, and taught his fencers to be both quick and thoughtful, studying their opponents before matches to analyze weak spots. Some who saw him in action described him as a sort of father figure who used fencing to teach life lessons.

“It’s extremely difficult to get people who are academically viable and who are also excellent fencers,” Brand told the Globe in 2006. “But the most important thing is character.”

Once, Brand had declared being named the head coach at Harvard one of the highlights of his life — as dear to him as the day he got married and the birth of his sons. But by 2009, with his 60s looming, Brand’s wife was fretting about his pay level at the university, according to e-mails the couple exchanged over her work e-mail address at the city of Cambridge, which the Globe obtained by public records request. By 2010, the couple was discussing his retirement. By early 2012, he was looking at part-time jobs to complement his pension.

But Brand didn’t leave. Jack Zhao’s oldest boy was about to head into his junior year at St. Albans. Soon, he would be applying to college.

A trove of texts

The texts, which appear to be authentic messages between Peter Brand and Alexandre Ryjik, begin at 8:17 p.m. on May 1, 2012.

“Jack doesn’t need to take me anywhere and his boys don’t have to be great fencers. All I need is a good incentive to recruit them,” writes the sender, identified as “Piter Brand” in the screenshot. “You can tell him that.”

Perhaps unbeknownst to Brand, Ryjik was storing screenshots of their communication on his computer. The messages, sprinkled with typos, span a period from May to July 2012, and form a contemporary record.

“Is there space for . . . your favorite Chinese supporter?” Ryjik asked Brand at one point.

“Of course as long as Zao cones through with the financial support ;)” Brand replied. When Ryjik suggested they continue the discussion over dinner, Brand texted:

“He is my no 1 recruit as long as my future us secured”

Brand, Ryjik, and Zhao all declined to respond to questions about the messages.

The texts might have vanished into the ether. But six years after they were written, Ryjik’s wife, Kathleen, discovered them while searching through his computer. She read with rising alarm — and sudden clarity. She knew how they did it.

When Alexandre Ryjik started his charity, the National Fencing Foundation, his wife had thrown herself into helping him with it, and by 2010, was serving as director, according to tax documents.

But she’d left that position in disgust, she said, after Ryjik revealed to her the true purpose of the foundation — and it was not helping poor children. Kathleen Ryjik said she doesn’t remember his exact words, but she remembers that he was so shockingly explicit about what he was doing that she didn’t believe him at first.

The foundation, she says he explained, was just a way for rich parents to pay him to get their children into Ivy League schools without raising eyebrows.

Horrified, she broke up with Ryjik and quit the foundation. When the couple got back together a few months later, she said, Alexandre Ryjik promised her that nothing untoward was going on.

She had wanted to believe him. Then she came across the text messages. They told a different story. She took pictures of them.

She e-mailed Alexandre Ryjik in November 2018 to tell him she had found evidence he was involved in a scheme “involving millions of dollars, Harvard University, Jack Zhao, and . . . Peter Brant, [sic] to allow fencers to be accepted into the school.”

It was only after the Globe ran its first story in April, and Alexandre Ryjik incorrectly identified his estranged wife as the newspaper’s source, that Kathleen Ryjik contacted a reporter.

$1 million donation

A million dollars came through in February 2013, in the form of a donation from Zhao to Ryjik’s charity, the National Fencing Foundation — just as Ryjik had been heard boasting. Three months later, Peter Brand and his wife incorporated their own charity, the Peter Brand Foundation, in Delaware, records show.

Jie “Jack” Zhao

Zhao, according to his attorney, Bill Weinreb, made the gift after coming into money from the sale of his company, and it was meant to benefit US fencing, not Ryjik personally. Weinreb said Zhao never gave any money to Brand, or knew of plans to do so.

In October 2013, Brand got an e-mail from Harvard about “likely letters,” the notification the school sends to athletes who are being recruited to a spot on Harvard sports teams.

“Today the Admissions Committee did vote likelies for both [Zhao’s older son] and [another student],” the e-mail read. “Their admissions officers will call them tonight with the good news!”

Brand forwarded it to his wife.

“Good news indeed :)” he wrote.

Harvard does not reserve slots for recruited athletes, but a coach’s blessing helps.

Two months after that, Zhao sent an e-mail to Ryjik, which Ryjik forwarded to Kathleen Ryjik, who shared it later with the Globe.

“Hi Boss,” Zhao wrote. “It is official now. I just want to thank you for what you did, really appreciate.”

Attached was his older son’s acceptance letter to Harvard University.

Zhao’s attorney said the thank you to Ryjik was for “helping his oldest son become a Division I level talent and recommending him to Harvard. It was not a thank you for anything else.”

In fall 2014, the elder Zhao boy came to Cambridge, and Ryjik’s foundation cut Brand’s foundation a check for $100,000.

Another son

Jack Zhao still had his younger son to think about.

Like his older brother, the younger Zhao boy was a good student and a good fencer. The boys’ mother had gone to Harvard. And sometime between 2015 and 2016, according to school records, the Zhao family joined Harvard’s “1913 Society” — families that give a life income gift or planned provision to the school. On the basis of his pedigree alone, Harvard would have given the boy preference.

But in the world of elite fencing, there are lots of good students with the right families, and parents and coaches openly brag about the legal lengths they go to — private lessons, international travel, relocation — to get young fencers into the Ivy League. How much was enough?

In 2015, Zhao’s financial connection to Ryjik deepened. Zhao’s company bought Freedom Enterprises, a limited liability company that Ryjik and his first wife ran that owned the property where they operated their fencing academy. He has declined to disclose the price, but county records show the building and land were worth about $6.2 million at the time.

And then, in 2016, Zhao made a purchase that, three years later, would thrust them all into the sights of the Globe and federal prosecutors.

He bought Peter Brand’s house, a tired little Colonial in Needham, for about $400,000 over the assessed value. In April, Zhao defended this move, saying Brand was a dear friend with a bad commute, and he wanted to help. Brand and his wife moved into a $1.3 million Cambridge condo with a private roof deck.

In 2017, Zhao’s younger son started at Harvard, on the fencing team with his brother.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI declined to comment.

“We do not confirm or deny investigations,” said Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling.

Zhao, Ryjik, and Brand all declined to answer questions about whether they had been subpoenaed.

In the wake of Brand’s firing for violating the university’s conflict of interest policy, Harvard said it would train its athletic personnel to avoid entanglements in the future. The Zhao boys, the university said, were both fencers, and both qualified to be there.

Zhao’s older son graduated from Harvard in 2018. His younger son remains on the fencing team’s roster.

Globe correspondent Diamond Naga Siu contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.