A former MIT Media Lab fund-raiser who has become a central figure in the unfolding scandal over the research center’s extensive ties to Jeffrey Epstein said Tuesday that he was following the university’s practices in accepting donations from the disgraced financier.
Peter Cohen, a former director of development and strategy, said in a statement that when he joined the Media Lab in 2014, it already had established procedures for handling Epstein’s contributions.
Cohen said he understood that those policies were “authorized by and implemented with the full knowledge of MIT central administration.”
According to e-mails released by a whistle-blower, Cohen acted as an intermediary between the Media Lab and its former director, Joi Ito, and the university’s central administration on donor issues.
Cohen also worked with Ito on Epstein-related matters, such as developing a written proposal for funding from Microsoft founder Bill Gates that Epstein said he could arrange.
Cohen said he had no personal relationship with Epstein and his interactions with him were few and brief.
“Notwithstanding my personal discomfort regarding Mr. Epstein and his involvement with MIT, I did not believe I was in a position to change MIT’s polices and practices,” Cohen said in an e-mailed statement. “I did not witness anything I understood to be illegal, and I never solicited gifts from Mr. Epstein.”
Cohen has been working at Brown University as its director of development for computer and data science initiatives since 2018. On Sunday, Brown placed him on paid leave after reports that he helped secure money from Epstein. Cohen said he hopes to eventually return to his position.
Ito resigned Saturday after an explosive report in The New Yorker alleged that he and other Media Lab employees had deliberately masked the full extent of the center’s ties to Epstein and worked with the convicted sex offender even though the university had listed him as a “disqualified” donor.
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 worked with Cohen.
MIT president L. Rafael Reif said Monday that the university had retained the law firm Goodwin Procter to investigate Epstein’s interactions with MIT. Epstein was convicted as a sex offender in 2008 for soliciting a minor for prostitution and sentenced to a 13-month jail term. Despite that criminal history, Ito said he wooed Epstein as a donor for the lab when he met him in 2013.
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 own venture funds. Ito has also said that he traveled to Epstein’s homes.
But Epstein’s involvement with the Media Lab extended far beyond that, according to the e-mails.
Ito and other MIT employees wrote in the e-mails that Epstein had acted as an intermediary to help the Media Lab secure major donations, including $5.5 million from investor Leon Black, founder of one of the world’s largest private equity firms, and $2 million from Gates.
Epstein was also included in an intimate dinner planned with Silicon Valley bigwigs, Ito, and other Media Lab staff at an exclusive Palo Alto restaurant in the summer of 2015. Cohen was not on the invited list.
Media Lab officials were also in talks with Epstein and other donors about creating fellowships and prizes for recognizing and cultivating genius and creativity outside the traditional disciplines, including a society of “Antidisciplinary Scholars,” according to e-mails from 2014 and 2015.
According to the e-mails, Ito would typically communicate directly with Epstein about donors and his financial contributions and ask Cohen to provide follow-up material and ideas.
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.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.