How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein | The New Yorker
The M.I.T. Media Lab, which has been embroiled in a scandal over accepting donations from the financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, had a deeper fund-raising relationship with Epstein than it has previously acknowledged, and it attempted to conceal the extent of its contacts with him. Dozens of pages of e-mails and other documents obtained by The New Yorker reveal that, although Epstein was listed as “disqualified” in M.I.T.’s official donor database, the Media Lab continued to accept gifts from him, consulted him about the use of the funds, and, by marking his contributions as anonymous, avoided disclosing their full extent, both publicly and within the university. Perhaps most notably, Epstein appeared to serve as an intermediary between the lab and other wealthy donors, soliciting millions of dollars in donations from individuals and organizations, including the technologist and philanthropist Bill Gates and the investor Leon Black. According to the records obtained by The New Yorker and accounts from current and former faculty and staff of the media lab, Epstein was credited with securing at least $7.5 million in donations for the lab, including two million dollars from Gates and $5.5 million from Black, gifts the e-mails describe as “directed” by Epstein or made at his behest. The effort to conceal the lab’s contact with Epstein was so widely known that some staff in the office of the lab’s director, Joi Ito, referred to Epstein as Voldemort or “he who must not be named.”
In a statement last month, M.I.T.’s president, L. Rafael Reif, wrote, “with hindsight, we recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts. No apology can undo that.” Reif pledged to donate the funds to a charity to help victims of sexual abuse
Epstein’s apparent role in directing outside contributions was also elided. In October, 2014, the Media Lab received a two-million-dollar donation from Bill Gates; Ito wrote in an internal e-mail, “This is a $2M gift from Bill Gates directed by Jeffrey Epstein.” Cohen replied, “For gift recording purposes, we will not be mentioning Jeffrey’s name as the impetus for this gift.” A mandatory record of the gift filed within the university stated only that “Gates is making this gift at the recommendation of a friend of his who wishes to remain anonymous.” Knowledge of Epstein’s alleged role was usually kept within a tight circle. In response to the university filing, Cohen wrote to colleagues, “I did not realize that this would be sent to dozens of people,” adding that Epstein “is not named but questions could be asked” and that “I feel uncomfortable that this was distributed so widely.” He wrote that future filings related to Epstein should be submitted only “if there is a way to do it quietly.” An agent for Gates wrote to the leadership of the Media Lab, stating that Gates also wished to keep his name out of any public discussion of the donation.
Epstein, who socialized with a range of high-profile and influential people, had for years been followed by claims that he sexually abused underage girls. Police investigated the reports several times. In 2008, after a Florida grand jury charged Epstein with soliciting prostitution, he received a controversial plea deal, which shielded him from federal prosecution and allowed him to serve less than thirteen months, and much of it on a “work release,” permitting him to spend much of his time out of jail. Alexander Acosta, the prosecutor responsible for that plea deal, went on to become President Trump’s Secretary of Labor, but resigned from that post in July, amid widespread criticism related to the Epstein case. That same month, Esptein was arrested in New York, on federal sex-trafficking charges. He died from suicide, in a jail cell in Manhattan, last month.
In the summer of 2015, as the Media Lab determined how to spend the funds it had received with Epstein’s help, Cohen informed lab staff that Epstein would be coming for a visit. The financier would meet with faculty members, apparently to allow him to give input on projects and to entice him to contribute further. Swenson, the former development associate and alumni coördinator, recalled saying, referring to Epstein, “I don’t think he should be on campus.” She told me, “At that point it hit me: this pedophile is going to be in our office.” According to Swenson, Cohen agreed that Epstein was “unsavory” but said “we’re planning to do it anyway—this was Joi’s project.” Staffers entered the meeting into Ito’s calendar without including Epstein’s name. They also tried to keep his name out of e-mail communication. “There was definitely an explicit conversation about keeping it off the books, because Joi’s calendar is visible to everyone,” Swenson said. “It was just marked as a V.I.P. visit.”
Zuckerman began providing counsel to other colleagues who also objected. He directed Swenson to seek representation from the legal nonprofit Whistleblower Aid, and she began the process of going public. “Jeffrey Epstein shows that—with enough money—a convicted sex offender can open doors at the highest level of philanthropy,” John Tye, Swenson’s attorney at Whistleblower Aid, told me. “Joi Ito and his development chief went out of their way to keep Epstein’s role under wraps. When institutions try to hide the truth, it often takes a brave whistle-blower to step forward. But it can be dangerous, and whistle-blowers need support.”
Questions about when to accept money from wealthy figures accused of misconduct have always been fraught. Before his conviction, Epstein donated to numerous philanthropic, academic, and political institutions, which responded in a variety of ways to the claims of abuse. When news of the allegations first broke, in 2006, a Harvard spokesperson said that the university, which had received a 6.5-million-dollar donation from him three years earlier, would not be returning the money. Following Epstein’s second arrest, in 2019, the university reiterated its stance. Many institutions attempted to distance themselves from Epstein after 2006, but others, including the M.I.T. Media Lab, continued to accept his money. When such donations come to light, institutions face difficult decisions about how to respond. The funds have often already been spent, and the tax deductions already taken by donors. But the revelations about Epstein’s widespread sexual misconduct, most notably reported by Julie K. Brown in the Miami Herald, have made clear that Epstein used the status and prestige afforded him by his relationships with élite institutions to shield himself from accountability and continue his alleged
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