Ex-MIT employee thought hiding gifts was protocol
MIT President L. Rafael Reif said Thursday that he apparently signed a thank-you letter to Jeffrey Epstein in 2012 for a donation to one of the university’s professors, and that senior administration members knew about gifts from Epstein’s foundations to MIT’s Media Lab between 2013 and 2017.
In a letter posted on MIT’s website, Reif also said a preliminary investigation by outside law firm Goodwin Procter into “facts surrounding” MIT and Epstein also “indicates” that Reif had been present at “at least one of MIT’s regular senior team meetings” during which Epstein’s gifts to MIT were discussed.
Reif said he doesn’t remember signing the thank-you letter to Epstein, but “it does bear my signature.” The letter was signed about six weeks after he became president, Reif said.
Reif’s disclosure comes after a former MIT Media Lab employee, who participated in efforts to keep donations from Jeffrey Epstein anonymous, told CNN that his actions were in line with what he understood were policies “authorized” by MIT when he started working there.
“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 policies and practices,” Peter Cohen, former director of Development and Strategy at MIT Media Lab, told CNN in a statement Wednesday.
Internal communications and documents obtained by CNN — first reported by the New Yorker — show Epstein was integral to incoming, multimillion-dollar donations from major donors, and that the lab made efforts to make sure Epstein’s name was not associated with donations he made or helped solicit.
Epstein, 66, died in jail August 10 while he was waiting to be tried on federal charges of running a sex trafficking ring of underage girls, some as young as 14 years old. His death was ruled a suicide.
‘Policies and practices in place’
Cohen said in the statement when he joined in 2014 “there were gift acceptance policies and practices in place regarding” the late financier that he “understood were authorized by, and implemented with the full knowledge of, MIT central administration.”
The communications obtained by CNN show Epstein was associated with at least $7 million in donations from wealthy donors to the MIT Media Lab.
Over the weekend Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab at MIT, resigned.
MIT said last month it’s reviewing about $800,000 it received from foundations controlled by Epstein. The school will donate that amount to a charity benefiting Epstein’s victims or other sexual abuse victims, according to an August email from Reif.
When senior administration members learned about the first of the gifts from Epstein’s foundations to the Media Lab, Reif said Thursday they “knew in general terms” of the financier’s history, but accepted Ito’s assessment that Epstein had “stopped his criminal behavior.”
“I am aware that we could and should have asked more questions about Jeffrey Epstein and about his interactions with Joi,” Reif wrote. “We did not see through the limited facts we had, and we did not take time to understand the gravity of Epstein’s offenses or the harm to his young victims. I take responsibility for those errors.”
Reif said in a statement last weekend that he asked MIT’s general counsel to “engage a prominent law firm to design and conduct” the process of a “thorough and independent investigation” of the allegations of engagement between individuals at the Media Lab and Epstein.
CNN has reached out to MIT to inquire about its policies with regards to Epstein donations and for a response to Cohen’s comments.
‘Mistake in judgment’
Reif said in his weekend statement that “the acceptance of the Epstein gifts involved a mistake of judgment. We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future.”
Email exchanges obtained by CNN show Cohen and Ito participated in making sure Epstein’s donation earmarked for a researcher remained anonymous.
As discussions continued about the funding for the researcher, Cohen sent an email to an undisclosed recipient, saying “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous.”
The internal communications dating back to 2014 include several references to Epstein being allowed to make small donations anonymously.
For example, a donation that popped into the system is flagged to Cohen who says “Jeffrey has an account that is supposed to allow him to make small gifts anonymously. If this was credited to him, it should have been anonymous.”
‘Disgusted and distraught’
In his statement, Cohen said he is, like others, “disgusted and distraught by Jeffrey Epstein’s conduct.”
“I did not witness anything I understood to be illegal, and I never solicited gifts from Mr. Epstein,” Cohen said in his statement.
“I had no personal relationship with him, and my personal dealings with him were limited to a very few, brief interactions during my MIT tenure,” Cohen said.
Cohen began working at Brown University — his alma mater — in 2018 as Director of Development for Computer and Data Science Initiatives.
He is currently on administrative leave pending review, the university announced over the weekend.
In a statement, Brown University said,” We are engaged in a review of available information regarding Mr. Cohen in the context of Brown University policies, core values and the University’s commitment to treat employees fairly.” It added that “Brown has not, in its history, received any funds from Jeffrey Epstein.”
Ito also resigned from the board of directors at The New York Times Company this weekend.
The New Yorker reported that Ito, in an internal email, said his resignation at MIT was for the “best” after he had given it a “great deal of thought over the past several days and weeks.”
CNN has reached out to Ito for comment.
The MIT Media Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that conducts research focusing “on the study, invention, and creative use of digital technologies to enhance the ways that people think, express, and communicate ideas, and explore new scientific frontiers,” according to the lab’s website.
Epstein faced sex trafficking accusations in Florida in 2007 but signed a deal that year with federal prosecutors in Miami allowing him to avoid federal sex trafficking charges and plead guilty to lesser state prostitution charges. He was required to register as a sex offender in states where he lived.
CNN’s Brian Vitagliano, Shannon Liao, Monica Haider, Rob Frehse, Steve Almasy and contributed to this report.