In the aftermath of the college admissions scandal that took over national headlines in late March and April, a quieter scandal emerged as the nation’s most prestigious university in Massachusetts.
A pair of fencers on Harvard’s nationally-competitive team were tied to a real estate transaction where their Chinese-American father purchased the house of the longtime Harvard fencing coach for more than $400,000 above the home’s listed asking price. Less than two years later, the younger son was admitted to Harvard as a preferred candidate for the fencing team.
Now, the Boston Globe is reporting that the family’s real estate dealings may have gone far beyond that, and that fencing was always involved.
According to a new report from the Globe, Jie “Jack” Zhao, the CEO if iTalk Global Communications, not only purchased the former home of longtime Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand, he initially may have helped his sons’ fencing future by purchasing the 40,000 square foot property that houses the Virginia Academy of Fencing, arguably the nation’s most prestigious youth fencing training academy. In addition to that $6 million purchase, Zhao also allegedly donated $1 million to Virginia Academy of Fencing founder Alexandre Ryjik’s fencing foundation and often paid to fly the founder business class to international events.
Indeed, it was the legitimate athletic prowess of Zhao’s older son (who was admitted to Harvard and was a competitive member of the fencing team) and a budding relationship with Ryjik that apparently drove an eventual three-student train to Harvard, first with Zhao’s elder son and Ryjik’s own son, then Zhao’s younger son after Brand’s house had been purchased.
But the relationship between Ryjik and Zhao may have been much more one-sided than initially assessed, according to the Globe’s reporting:
Ryjik saw Zhao as a “walking ATM machine,” said Jim Murray, a former coach at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. “Ryjik thought this was Daddy Warbucks who had discovered fencing.” …
As his sons grew in the sport, Zhao was flying them, along with Ryjik, to international fencing tournaments.
During his 2013 divorce, Ryjik sought to line up a buyer for his ex-wife’s stake in Freedom Enterprises, the limited liability company that owns the fencing academy building, according to attorney Mark Sandground Sr., who represented Ryjik’s now-ex-wife.
iTalk bought Freedom Enterprises outright, paying the full appraised amount in 2015, according to William A. Burge, general counsel for iTalk. He declined to disclose the price, but county records show the building and land were worth about $6.2 million at the time. Burge said the Virginia Academy of Fencing merely leases space in the building.
“We didn’t buy a fencing club or anything like that,” Burge said. “We bought some dirt and a building. Period.”
While Burge’s justification for the purchase provides a strong legal case for why the purchase may not have been a direct conflict of interest, common sense holds that there would have been equally available land for purchase that didn’t hold a direct connection and potential conflict of interest to Zhao’s sons.
The new information will only heat up pressure on Harvard’s ongoing investigation into Brand’s dealings with Zhao, and the Zhao sons’ place on the Harvard fencing team, particularly his younger son.