NEW YORK (Reuters) - Some charities that have received money from U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein said they are reviewing their relationships with him or will decline to accept any future gifts from him in the wake of recent allegations he forced an underage girl to have sex with Britain’s Prince Andrew and other powerful men.
Epstein, 62, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to procuring an underage girl for prostitution and served a year in a Florida jail, has long burnished his reputation as a philanthropist through a series of foundations that he says have given millions of dollars to institutions ranging from Harvard University to a New York junior tennis league.
The allegations involving Epstein became a tabloid sensation on both sides of the Atlantic after lawyers for one of Epstein’s accusers made them in a court filing just over a month ago. It prompted strong denials from Prince Andrew and from prominent U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who was also accused of having sex with the girl.
The filing has also renewed questions about Epstein’s once close links to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, though there are no allegations of any wrongdoing by Clinton.
In interviews with Reuters, three recipients of Epstein’s money said they would accept no more gifts, at least while the recent allegations are under review. They are a cancer researcher at New York City’s Mount Sinai hospital who with colleagues received $50,000 in seed funding; a mentoring program for young Swedish businesswomen that got $30,000; and Ballet Palm Beach in Florida, which declined to say how much Epstein gave.
“The further I can keep myself from anything like that the better,” Ballet Palm Beach founder Colleen Smith said in a phone interview.
Epstein did not respond to interview requests. In response to two pages of written questions from Reuters, a lawyer for Epstein said the financier’s philanthropy has been widespread for an extensive period of time.
“His efforts include making substantial contributions to scientific and medical progress and in helping children in providing them with the educational and technological tools necessary for their having a chance to succeed,” the lawyer, Martin Weinberg, said in an emailed statement. “It would be unfortunate if the recent media activity would in any way adversely impact Mr. Epstein’s efforts in any of these areas,” he added.
Well before Epstein went to jail, he saw philanthropy as a way to bring together people from different walks of life in settings ranging from his own mansions to academic conferences, friends said.
“His interest is in interesting people and interesting ideas,” said Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, who directs a program on the origins of life that Epstein has supported. He said he would feel cowardly if he turned away from Epstein because of accusations Krauss knew nothing about.
Epstein has touted his philanthropy through regular press releases, such as one in November that referred to him as “an unusual Harvard investor and private financier.”
According to publicly available tax records, Epstein has given money through at least three foundations. One of the three dissolved in 2012, and a second disbursed only $107,000 in a recent 12-month period, according to its tax return.
For the third foundation, named the J. Epstein Virgin Islands Foundation Inc but also doing business as Enhanced Education, the most recent tax return Reuters could locate was from 2002. Epstein’s primary residence is a private island off St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Epstein’s total donations are difficult to estimate because Reuters had access only to publicly available tax records for foundations where there was confirmation of a link to Epstein.
In two cases, Epstein boasted about donations he never made, a major university said. In a July 2014 press release, Epstein claimed he provided “critical funding” for scientists at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to restore five Mark Rothko murals, and in a September 2014 press release, he said he gave money to the MIT Media Lab to teach toddlers computer programming.
The Rothko press release “was simply not correct, and was issued without our knowledge or agreement,” and the toddler press release was also “completely incorrect,” said MIT Media Lab spokeswoman Alexandra Kahn in an email. A press release issued by the Harvard Art Museums on the Rothko project credited eight funding sources, none of them Epstein. An MIT press release on the toddlers credited five sources, and Epstein was not among them.
Epstein did not respond to questions about the MIT programs.
The recipient of one of the largest donations from Epstein has been Harvard, to which Epstein pledged $30 million in 2003, according to news reports at the time. By 2006, when charges against Epstein were made public in Florida, he had fulfilled at least $6.5 million of that pledge, the reports said. Harvard’s then president said he would not return the money because it was doing good for science.
Harvard declined to comment to Reuters, citing donor privacy.
Epstein’s philanthropy website, jeffreyepstein.org, had until recently listed about 20 charities he gave to last year. By last week, the page was no longer visible.
Little is known publicly about how Epstein made his money. He has said that, after working at investment bank Bear Stearns beginning in the 1970s, he managed assets for billionaires such as Leslie Wexner, founder of Victoria’s Secret parent L Brands Inc.
The latest allegations against Epstein emerged on Dec. 30 when lawyers said in a Florida federal court filing that Epstein trafficked a teenager for sexual purposes to prominent businessmen and public figures. The woman and other accusers are asking a judge to examine Epstein’s 2008 plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to see whether their rights as victims were violated.
No group interviewed by Reuters said it would give back money. Doris Germain, an associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said she could not return the money because it was spent more than a year ago on breast cancer research.
“I don’t think I would accept money from him anymore, but then you sort of wonder,” Germain said. “We happen to know what he’s done, but what about all the other people who are giving money to foundations? We don’t know what they’re doing. Is it all clean? I don’t know.”
Epstein’s money has been refused before. In 2006, Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat then running to become governor of New York, returned about $50,000 in campaign contributions, news reports said. Spitzer did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2006, one of Epstein’s three foundations gave $25,000 to Bill Clinton’s foundation, according to tax records. Clinton’s foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
Epstein flew Clinton to Africa in 2002 to talk about anti-poverty and anti-AIDS programs. And according to flight records obtained by the website Gawker, the former U.S. president traveled on Epstein’s jet at least 10 other times between 2002 and 2003.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm the flights. Clinton could not be reached for comment.
At least two grant recipients in academia are standing by Epstein, saying he remains a friend: Krauss and Robert Trivers, a Rutgers University biologist. Trivers said Epstein is a person of integrity who should be given credit for serving time in prison and for settling civil lawsuits brought by women who said they were abused.
“Did he get an easy deal? Did he buy himself a light sentence? Well, yes, probably, compared to what you or I would get, but he did get locked up,” Trivers said. He said he got about $40,000 from Epstein to study the relationship between knee symmetry and sprinting ability.
Trivers also said he believes girls mature earlier than in the past. “By the time they’re 14 or 15, they’re like grown women were 60 years ago, so I don’t see these acts as so heinous,” he said.
Another recipient of Epstein’s foundations, Ira Lamster, a former dean of the Columbia University dental school, said he has not asked Epstein for funding since getting $100,000 about three years ago to study the relationship between diabetes and oral health.
“Am I glad I didn’t go back for additional funding?” he said. “I guess I am, but in my interactions with him, he was always a gentleman.”
Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Amy Stevens, Noeleen Walder and Martin Howell