Harvard investigating fencing coach’s home sale to athletes’ family

Harvard University is investigating its head fencing coach amid allegations he conducted a real estate transaction that involved the family of a current and a former student-athlete, the school announced Thursday.

In 2016, Coach Peter Brand sold his home in Needham, Massachusetts, for almost twice what a tax document said it was worth. Now, Harvard is conducting an independent review of that transaction.

Jie Zhao bought Brand’s home for $989,500, according to the deed. At the time, he had a son on the Harvard fencing team and one in high school, The Boston Globe reported.

However, a municipal lien certificate indicates the home was worth just under $550,000. Zhao sold the property about 17 months later at a loss of over $300,000.

Following the sale of his home in Needham, Brand purchased a condominium in Cambridge.

Documents obtained by CNN show the Cambridge property was originally listed for $989,000 – just $500 less than what Zhao paid for Brand’s Needham home. Brand bought the Cambridge condo for about $300,000 over the asking price.

Gary J. Vrotsos, the listing agent for the property in Cambridge, told CNN that this was not an uncommon occurrence. “When the market’s strong people put in offers over the asking price,” Vrotsos said.

Brand was appointed as Harvard’s head fencing coach in 1999, moving from a role at Brown University. He emigrated from Israel to the US as a teenager and has coached the Harvard team to unprecedented success, according to Harvard’s website.

“Harvard’s rise to the top of intercollegiate fencing has been nothing short of meteoric since Brand has been at the helm of the program,” his Harvard profile reads.

In interviews with the Boston Globe, Zhao has denied anything unusual about his property purchase and insisted that he bought the property as an investment and as a favor for his friend, the coach.

According to the Globe, Zhao has two sons, one who was admitted to Harvard as a fencer in 2017. The other son, also a fencer according to the Globe, graduated in 2018.

Zhao has not responded to CNN’s phone calls requesting comment. Calls to phone numbers listed for Brand did not go through, and he has not responded to CNN’s email requests for comment.

Harvard said it was first made aware of the connection and real estate transactions by The Boston Globe’s reporting. In a letter to the faculty of Arts and Sciences community Thursday, Dean Claudine Gay said “there is a lot we still don’t know” but that the allegation does not appear to be connected to the nationwide college admissions cheating scheme being investigated by federal prosecutors in Massachusetts.

The scandal has led to federal criminal charges against 50 people, and left the nation stunned at the lengths to which rich parents will go to get their kids into elite schools.

“Regardless of what we eventually learn about these allegations, this is not a time for complacency,” Gay said in her statement, “Where there are opportunities to clarify practices and strengthen procedures, we must act on them, and do so with a sense of urgency.”