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Parent on Trial for Alleged Admissions Bribery Scheme Was Key Donor to Harvard Fencing, Witness Says

Former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand exits the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse Friday.
Former Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand exits the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse Friday. By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen
By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen and Carrie Hsu, Crimson Staff Writers

BOSTON — A fundraiser for Harvard’s fencing program told a federal jury Wednesday that Maryland businessman Jie “Jack” Zhao — accused of bribing the team’s former head coach Peter Brand — provided key funding for the team.

Lawrence G. “Larry” Cetrulo ’71, co-chair of the Friends of Harvard Fencing fundraising group, told jurors on the seventh day of trial that Zhao and his wife were the largest parent contributors to the group, helping bolster a sport that Cetrulo said often struggled to secure financial support.

Brand, who was fired from his position as Harvard’s head fencing coach in 2019, is facing trial after allegedly accepting over $1.5 million in bribes from Zhao in exchange for recruiting spots for Zhao’s sons. Brand and Zhao were indicted on federal bribery charges in 2020.

Defense attorneys for Brand sought to show that Harvard’s fencing program needed financial support from parents, pushing the ex-coach to consider potential contributions that prospective fencers would bring to the program.

Cetrulo said Friends of Harvard Fencing provides more than 50 percent of the fencing team’s funding. He told jurors that without financial contributions from parents and alumni, the program “could easily be cut” during periods of economic downturn.

Zoran R. Tulum — a former fencing head coach at Stanford who testified later in the day — told a defense attorney for Zhao that programs at UC Berkeley, UC San Jose, Northwestern, Cornell, and Brown had been cut due to financial woes or to adhere to Title IX.

Tulum said, however, that he did not recall recruiting students based on families’ potential for financial contributions in his 13 years at Stanford.

Cetrulo, who represented Brand during the 2019 internal investigation that led to Brand’s firing, added he often shared his opinion with Brand on potential recruits and is “in constant contact with admissions and recruiting and development at Harvard.”

“I play a role in formulating the standards for recruiting,” Cetrulo said. “You need academic excellence, you need character, you need athletic ability, and it would be good to show some demonstration of capacity to support the program.”

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in a statement to The Crimson provided during Cetrulo’s testimony that he has no involvement with the University’s admissions processes.

“Larry Cetrulo is not employed by Harvard University in any capacity,” Dane wrote. “He does not receive training or documents related to Admissions related procedures and policies, nor has he met with admissions officers in his capacity as co-chair of the Friends of Harvard Fencing.”

Later in the day, Zhao’s lawyers sought to portray him as a friendly businessman with a habit of over-trusting others. Tony Wei, who co-founded iTalk Global Communications, Inc. with Zhao, testified that Zhao was sometimes “too soft” of a businessman.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors have sought to substantiate the alleged bribery scheme between Zhao and Brand by presenting a series of checks from Zhao on behalf of Brand, as well as invoices from iTalk to S+H Construction, the company that handled renovations for Brand’s Cambridge condominium in 2016.

Brand’s attorneys described the transactions between Brand and Zhao as “a friend loaning a friend money” in their opening statement Dec. 6.

Wei told jurors that Zhao had loaned $500,000 to Wei’s steel company in a lump-sum payment six months after meeting Wei. According to Wei, Zhao did not ask for a contract, interest, or deadline at the time of the loan.

When Zhao’s defense attorney, Michael T. C. Packard ’02, asked if Zhao chased Wei down for the money, Wei replied, “Actually, I chased him.”

The trial is set to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at ryan.doannguyen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff Writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at carrie.hsu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieHsu9.

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