The case was not part of the Varsity Blues investigation, but it was tried by some of the same prosecutors and had strikingly similar details. It was prompted by a Boston Globe investigation in 2019 that found that Mr. Zhao, chief executive of telecommunications company iTalk Global Communications, had bought Mr. Brand’s house at an inflated price. After the Globe report, Harvard fired the coach.
Mr. Weinreb, Mr. Zhao’s lawyer, said in an interview that Mr. Zhao’s sons were highly qualified for admission — both academically and as fencers. And he said that Mr. Zhao was simply a generous man and a soft touch.
In his closing argument, Mr. Weinreb leaned in on the fund-raising.
“The family not only paid full tuition for the two boys all eight years, they also donated more than $300,000 to the university — and that includes $250,000 that they used to start a trust that will be worth $1 million to Harvard when it matures,” he told the jury.
As soon as the Zhaos made the first $250,000 donation, Mr. Weinreb said, “Harvard kept coming back and back for more, because the Zhaos are exactly the kind of family that Harvard wants in the fold.”
In the Zhaos, he said, Harvard got “great kids, great students, great fencers and a great family that has generously supported the college in its fencing program. Where is the crime in that?”
Rachael Dane, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said that the university was not implicated in Varsity Blues, nor a party to the fencing case, and would have no comment. Mr. Weinreb, she added, “is not employed by Harvard University and has no knowledge of our admissions process or preferences.”
Kevin G. Andrade contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.