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MIT Technology Review

Eight revelations from MIT’s Jeffrey Epstein report

At one point, university officials had wanted to approve Epstein donations of up to $10 million.

January 10, 2020
MITMIT
MIT
Yuhan Du

MIT today released the results of an outside investigation into the university’s connection with alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The report confirmed that top officials had committed “significant mistakes of judgment” in approving donations from Epstein, even though the university does not have formal policies around how to deal with controversial donors.

It was already known that senior administration figures had been aware of Epstein’s donations, which totaled $850,000 from 2002 to 2017. All donations were made either to the late MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky, former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, or mechanical engineering professor Seth Lloyd. The report confirmed that several administrators—Jeffrey Newton, Gregory Morgan, and Israel Ruiz—agreed to the donations on the condition that they be anonymous and that Epstein would not publicize them. 

While administrators knew of the donations, today’s report by the law firm Goodwin Procter found that none of them were aware that Epstein had visited campus nine times from 2013 to 2017.

Ito, who also admitted that his personal ventures outside MIT received $1.25 million from Epstein, resigned last September. Lloyd, who also accepted a personal gift of $60,000 from Epstein without telling MIT, has been placed on paid leave

Here are some of the significant details to come out in the 61-page document.

How everyone met

Epstein met Seth Lloyd at the Edge Billionaires’ Dinner in 2004, run by literary agent John Brockman, who has been responsible for connecting Epstein to many famous scientists. Ito met Epstein at a TED conference in 2013—or rather, in the hallway of a TED conference, as Epstein (who had been convicted in 2008 of soliciting sex with a minor) was barred from the actual event. The two were introduced by Linda Stone, who was a member of the Media Lab Advisory Council. 

MIT officials initially wanted to clear Epstein donations up to $10 million

Officials agreed to make Epstein’s donations anonymous to avoid controversy. In one email, MIT treasurer Israel Ruiz wrote that “we could accept seven figure gifts in this manner for now. If the amounts were to be larger, we should discuss again.” Later, Ruiz said that donations below $5 million a year were acceptable, “and no publicity at $1 or $2 million levels.” Although donations of as much as $5 million were specifically discussed, Epstein never donated more than $150,000 at one time.

The people interviewed could not remember “any other instance of a donor having his accounts at MIT designated anonymous at MIT’s own initiative, rather than at the donor’s request.” Additionally, only Ruiz and vice president for resource development Julie Lucas said they remembered Epstein ever being discussed in senior team meetings. According to Lucas, whenever Epstein was discussed, no terms like “sex offender” or “pedophile” ever came up. 

In December, MIT announced that Ruiz would step down at the end of the spring semester.

The chairman of the MIT Corporation knew Ito wanted donations from Epstein

In 2016, Ito tried to encourage MIT Corporation chair Robert Millard to cultivate Epstein as a donor, writing, “Can you help me figure out how to get money from JE [Epstein]?” (Ito believed that Millard and Epstein already knew each other.) The MIT Corporation is a governing body that is essentially the university’s board of trustees. Millard explained to the investigators that he personally wanted to distance himself from Epstein but did not think it was his job to veto donations. 

Epstein claimed credit for donations he did not make

Not only did Epstein fail to keep quiet about his donations, he also claimed to have donated to an MIT art restoration project and a Scratch coding project. In neither case was that true. 

Epstein was at MIT for Marvin Minsky’s memorial 

According to an email from Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte, Epstein’s closest friend at MIT was AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, who “even visited him in jail.” Today’s report showed that Epstein had donated $100,000 to Minsky in 2002, several years before his 2008 conviction. Nevertheless, Minsky has posthumously become associated with the Epstein scandal. In a deposition unsealed last August, Epstein accuser Virginia Giuffre said that Epstein forced her to have sex with Minsky

After Minsky died in 2016, Negroponte and Ito discussed whether to invite Epstein to the on-campus memorial event. Negroponte responded that Epstein could come and would be welcome. Ito, however, told Epstein to stay at the Media Lab and prevented him from going to the actual memorial or cocktail reception. Afterward, a Media Lab staff member shared photos of the memorial with the note, “Feel free to post on social media—as long as Jeffrey Epstein does not appear in any of the photos!”

Investigators found no evidence that Bill Gates and Leon Black had directed Epstein’s money

In September, a New Yorker article suggested that Epstein had facilitated $7.5 million in donations to the Media Lab from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and private equity mogul Leon Black. The Gates Foundation quickly denied this allegation. The investigators repeated the foundation’s denial and were not able to reach Black’s representatives, but said they did not find evidence for the claims. 

Ito consistently defended Epstein

After meeting Epstein, Ito claimed to do “due diligence” on him. This involved googling him and asking others to vouch for him, including Negroponte. He also spoke to tech billionaires including “a former LinkedIn senior executive and cofounder; and a well-known Harvard Law School professor.” 

As early as March 2013, Media Lab staff were warning Ito that Epstein “might not be an individual the Lab should work with.” In response to a different 2013 email raising concerns about Epstein, Ito said that he knew of the financier’s history but wrote, “I find him very smart and interesting and excited about our work.” 

Ito again defended Epstein in 2015 and 2017. In the latter case, responding to a Media Lab staff member who was unhappy about Epstein visiting campus, Ito responded in part:  “I’ve also talked to Nicholas [Negroponte] as well who had met him and he also agrees that we should treat Jeffrey with respect.”

The Media Lab rejected a $25,000 Epstein donation in 2019

In February 2019, after the Miami Herald investigation of Epstein had revived interest in his case, Media Lab staff decided to reject a $25,000 donation from him without first consulting Ito. After changing their minds and deciding to include him, Ito agreed with the decision and sent an email of explanation and apology to Epstein.