Scandal has been swirling around the MIT Media Lab because of its ties to Jeffrey Epstein, with the prestigious university apologizing for taking $800,000 from the accused sex trafficker and several researchers quitting in protest.
But the outcry is about to get much louder after a bombshell report by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow that reveals the financial relationship was more deeply entangled than previously known—so much so that Epstein’s donations were kept anonymous and the lab ignored pushback from its staffers to keep the money rolling in.
The report, which cites leaked emails and other records, appears to contradict lab director Joichi Ito’s recent claim that his decision to accept Epstein’s donations was simply an “error in judgement.”
Among the biggest disclosures:
EPSTEIN ALLEGEDLY ‘DIRECTED’ DONATION FROM BILL GATES
Epstein acted as an intermediary to woo other wealthy donors, including Bill Gates, who donated $2 million in 2014, and investor Leon Black, who gave $5.5 million in 2015, according to the report. Ito is said to have let Epstein—who had already spent a year in jail after a sex-trafficking investigation—handle the discussions with donors. “Gates would like a write up on our one science program for tues next week,” Epstein allegedly wrote to Ito at one point. The donation from Gates was later described as having been “directed” by Epstein, according to the report.
Once the donations were made, the lab reportedly went to great lengths to keep Epstein’s involvement secret. Documentation filed with the university did not mention Epstein by name, stating instead: “Gates is making this gift at the recommendation of a friend of his who wishes to remain anonymous.” A spokesperson for Gates told The New Yorker: “Any claim that Epstein directed any programmatic or personal grantmaking for Bill Gates is completely false.”
THE LAB WENT TO GREAT LENGTHS TO HIDE EPSTEIN’S INVOLVEMENT
The Media Lab’s efforts to keep Epstein’s involvement under wraps was so well-known among staffers that some employees in Ito’s office referred to the convicted sex offender as Voldemort, “he who must not be named” from the Harry Potter series, Farrow reported. In MIT’s official donor database, Epstein was listed as “disqualified”—and the lab took pains to make sure his dealings were kept secret.
As recently as September 2014, Ito is said to have emailed Epstein seeking “another $100K” so the lab could extend a researcher’s contract. When forwarding the email to a staffer, Ito allegedly wrote, “Make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.” The then-director of Development and Strategy, Peter Cohen, wrote, “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous. Thanks,” according to the report. Cohen is said to have echoed that language in a message about Gates’ donation, writing, “For gift recording purposes, we will not be mentioning Jeffrey’s name as the impetus for this gift.” He later reportedly said future records on donations involving Epstein should be made only “if there is a way to do it quietly.”
EPSTEIN VISITED WITH ‘FEMALE ASSISTANTS’
Epstein was reportedly invited to the Media Lab in 2015 to provide “input” on the projects his money was funding. Signe Swenson, a former development associate and alumni coordinator at the Media Lab, told The New Yorker she had pushed back against the visit in vain. Swenson said she ultimately resigned in 2016 partly because of the lab’s ties to Epstein. “I don’t think he should be on campus,” Swenson recalled saying at the time. “At that point it hit me: this pedophile is going to be in our office.”
Swenson said Cohen conceded that Epstein was “unsavory” but told her “we’re planning to do it anyway—this was Joi’s project.” The visit was marked on Ito’s calendar without any mention of Epstein by name, Swenson said. “There was definitely an explicit conversation about keeping it off the books, because Joi's calendar is visible to everyone,” she was quoted as saying.
Media Lab staffers were told to expect Epstein to bring his “two female ‘assistants,’” without whom he “never goes into any room.” Ito is said to have explicitly informed Cohen that Epstein would have two women in tow. When Epstein arrived, Swenson said she saw the two young women in question. “They were models. Eastern European, definitely.” All of the female staffers at the lab “made it a point to be super nice to them,” Swenson said. “We literally had a conversation about how, on the off chance that they’re not there by choice, we could maybe help them.”