Top level MIT fund-raising and finance officials were aware of Jeffrey Epstein’s extensive ties to the university’s Media Lab and agreed to keep them hidden, e-mails from a whistle-blower obtained by the Globe reveal.
The e-mails suggest that, far from acting alone, Media Lab employees and the research facility’s former director, Joi Ito, had a tacit understanding with some central university administrators to keep quiet Epstein’s financial contributions and his role in helping recruit other high-level donors.
Ito resigned on Saturday after an explosive report in The New Yorker alleged that he and other Media Lab employees deliberately masked the full extent of the center’s ties to Epstein and worked with the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender despite the university listing him as a “disqualified” donor.
But according to e-mails that circulated in 2014 and 2015 among university officials, at least two top MIT fund-raisers, along with a finance department administrator, were aware of Epstein’s involvement in the Media Lab and knew that his donations were to be treated as anonymous in the university’s donor tracking system.
The e-mails were provided by Whistleblower Aid, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit representing Signe Swenson, a former alumni coordinator and development associate at the Media Lab.
Swenson told The New Yorker that she resigned in 2016 in part because she felt uncomfortable with the Media Lab’s associations with Epstein. In a statement on Monday, she said she came forward with the documents because she was concerned that Ito and MIT were offering only a partial explanation of the university’s ties with Epstein.
“When I heard the statements coming from Ito and MIT, I could tell they didn’t capture the whole story and were so carefully crafted not to deny what I knew to be true either,” Swenson said. “I saw MIT was closing ranks. I couldn’t accept that.”
According to the e-mails, in July 2014, after Epstein made a $50,000 gift to MIT, Richard MacMillan, then a senior director for large individual domestic gifts for the university, alerted the Media Lab to the problems associated with the donation.
“Recall we are not taking gifts from him,” MacMillan wrote to Peter Cohen, who was then the Media Lab’s director of development and strategy.
Cohen responded that he had spoken to Ito and that Epstein had an account that allowed him to make small gifts anonymously.
In a July 28, 2014, e-mail exchange, Cohen relayed that Ito had told him that the recording secretary who helped the university track gifts “maintains this account and knows the drill.’’
Then, another person, who is not identified in the e-mails obtained by the Globe, explains to several people on the e-mail chain that the recording secretary “should be reminded of Epstein’s anonymous status. There must be some kind of note they can add to his record to assure that all these gifts continue to get recorded as such.’’
MacMillan then responded: “No it’s all set. She is taking care of it.’’
MacMillan is also included in e-mail chains that suggest Epstein acted as an intermediary to help the Media Lab secure major donations for the lab, including $5.5 million from investor Leon Black, founder of one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, and $2 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Later in 2014, Cohen wrote in an e-mail that Ito had an upcoming meeting with Julie Lucas, MacMillan’s boss, to talk about a gift from the Enhanced Education Foundation.
“It belongs to Jeffrey Epstein,” Cohen said in the e-mail.
At the time, Lucas had just been appointed as the vice president of resource development, MIT’s top fund-raiser who reports to the university’s president.
Cohen, who works as a fund-raising director at Brown University, did not respond to calls for comment. Brown has placed Cohen on administrative leave pending a review of his involvement at MIT with Epstein, according to news reports.
MIT officials did not respond to questions about who in the administration was aware of Epstein’s donations to the Media Lab and his work soliciting donors on behalf of the research center.
In a statement on Monday, MIT president L. Rafael Reif said that the university had retained law firm Goodwin Procter to investigate Epstein’s interactions with MIT.
“We have instructed Goodwin Procter to follow the evidence where it leads, and we are counting on this independent investigation to ascertain the facts,” Reif said in the statement to the MIT community.
Reif said he expected the investigation to take a month to complete.
He asked that the MIT community, “avoid forming a final judgment before the process is complete” and to “respect the privacy of members of our community who may have become involved in this matter in the course of doing their jobs for MIT.”
MacMillan, who left MIT this spring, said in a statement Monday that “to my knowledge” no gifts were accepted from “this individual” and that the development program told the Media Lab to avoid soliciting or receiving any gifts from Epstein.
“We did all that we could to reject any money from Epstein,” MacMillan said. “The development program could not control what Mr. Ito did or the choices he made.”
Ito did not return calls for comment.
During a meeting last week with members of the MIT Media Lab, Ito told faculty, students, and staff that he did not make a decision to accept Epstein’s funding on his own, according to Technology Review, an MIT-owned magazine, whose reporter attended the meeting.
Ito told the audience that he “had received a full due-diligence review from the university,” according to the report.
For weeks, Ito had been dogged by criticism over the money he had accepted from Epstein for the Media Lab and his own personal ventures, along with visits he made to Epstein’s homes.
Ito has said that the Media Lab took $525,000 from Epstein, and media reports suggest that he took $1.2 million from the financier for his venture funds.
Epstein was found dead in August in his jail cell at a federal detention facility in Manhattan, where he was being held on charges of sex trafficking of minors.
He had been convicted as a sex offender in 2008 for soliciting a minor for prostitution and had been sentenced to a 13-month jail term.
Despite that criminal history, Ito said he met Epstein in 2013 and wooed him as a donor for the lab and his personal ventures.
After Ito’s initial revelation of his Epstein ties in mid-August, a prominent professor and a visiting scholar each announced they would leave the lab in protest.
On Monday, Reif announced that the university’s dean of the architecture school would work with the Media Lab on finding interim leadership for the research center and its search for a new director.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.