This Chinese billionaire’s ‘gift’ got his daughter into Stanford. She says it was ‘hard work’

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A former Stanford University student whose parents paid $6.5 million to secure her admission to the prestigious school has not been charged with a crime in the college admissions scandal.

But Yusi Zhao became a key figure in the scandal after The Times revealed last week that her wealthy parents paid William “Rick” Singer, the admitted mastermind of the far-reaching scheme, the seven-figure sum shortly after she was accepted to Stanford in 2017.

The Zhaos’ payment far eclipsed the amounts allegedly paid by parents who have been implicated by prosecutors in Singer’s audacious scheme to get their children into elite universities through fraud, bribes and lies.

Unlike the 33 parents charged in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s investigation so far — a group that includes actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, the designer J. Mossimo Giannulli — no member of the Zhao family has been accused of a crime.

In a 2017 video discussing the college admissions process, Zhao credited “hard work” with getting her into Stanford. She said some people might think she got admitted because her parents were wealthy, but “the admissions officers don’t know you at all,” she said. She live-streamed the video on a Chinese website called Douyu TV, one of the largest live-stream platform in China.

Zhao’s father is a billionaire Chinese pharmaceutical executive who met with President Trump in 2017.

A lawyer for Zhao’s mother said Thursday the family believed the $6.5-million payment to Singer was a charitable gift to fund scholarships, staff salaries and programs for needy students at Stanford. The lawyer, Vincent W.C. Law, said Zhao’s mother had “been taken advantage of” and that her daughter was a “victim” of Singer’s deception.

Here is what we know about the family and the case.

How did the Zhao family connect with Singer?

It is believed Zhao’s parents met Singer through the manager of a Los Angeles-area branch of investment bank Morgan Stanley. Sources familiar with the manager said she often brought Singer into the office and encouraged her financial advisors to offer his college consulting services to their clients. The manager did not respond to a request for comment.

To ensure Zhao was admitted to Stanford, Singer targeted the school’s sailing program and portrayed her as a competitive sailor, despite there being no indication she competed in the sport, sources familiar with the case said.

It was not immediately known with whom Singer worked inside the university. Stanford’s former sailing coach, John Vandemoer, has pleaded guilty to racketeering and admitted to working with Singer.

Singer has pleaded guilty to four felonies and admitted to masterminding the admissions scheme.

What do we know about the Zhaos?

A Beijing address linked to Zhao is a gated compound in the leafy Shunyi neighborhood that is home to many wealthy Chinese, celebrities and foreigners. A Bentley, a Tesla and a red Ferrari were parked at the compound. A member of the staff at the house told a Times reporter that no one from the family was home and declined to say when anyone would return.

Yusi Zhao’s father, Zhao Tao, said Friday the circumstances of his daughter’s admission to Stanford were a “personal matter” unrelated to his company and that no company funds were involved in the transaction.

Zhao is the billionaire chairman of Shandong Buchang Pharmaceuticals, a public company traded on the Shanghai stock exchange. Its stock slipped last week after Zhao was tied to the $6.5-million payment.

In a statement posted to his company’s website, Zhao described the flurry of U.S. media reports that linked him and his family to the $6.5-million payment as “rumors.”

Law, the attorney, said Yusi Zhao’s mother was “shocked and deeply disturbed” to learn the true nature of Singer’s foundation and that the money did not go toward scholarships, athletic teams, staff salaries and programs that help students who otherwise could not afford to attend Stanford.

Singer solicited the $6.5-million payment from Zhao’s mother after her daughter was admitted to Stanford in March 2017, Law said, and she paid Singer’s foundation in April 2017.

“This generous act was not only done for the good of the school and its students, but also done out of the love and support of Yusi by a caring mother,” Law said. The payment was made “in the same nature” as donations that other wealthy families routinely make to universities, he added.

What did Yusi Zhao say on the video?

She explained her process for getting into Stanford, insisting she did so on her own.

“My main drive to apply for world-renowned universities is to find ways to improve myself. Since people who can get into Stanford are all very smart, I will be able to learn a lot from them,” she said.

“Don’t be affected by what people say about you. The important thing is to believe that you have the ability,” she added.

She noted “tuition for Stanford is 20 times higher than that for Tsinghua,” the top university in China. But, she added, “I’ve got my full scholarship to cover it, right?”

What is next in the case?

Law, the Zhaos’ attorney, said neither Yusi Zhao nor her parents did anything wrong, and cast the family as victims of a con artist.

But The Times reported Friday that prosecutors had sent a letter to Yusi Zhao informing her she is a possible target of their investigation, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Target letters are used to inform a person that a grand jury is reviewing evidence that may be used to charge the individual with a crime.

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