Some feminists and attentive newshounds will show little surprise when faced with the possibility that Jeffrey Epstein, now facing sex trafficking charges in New York, may fit a particular pattern: the powerful, wealthy man who has stopped believing that the rules apply to him. The type that, among many other things, abuses women and engages in “truthful hyperbole” when it comes to his charitable acts.
This latest set of charges against Epstein for sex trafficking follows a long history of charges of engaging in prostitution and sex with underage girls, and a suspect plea deal reached in 2008 that has led to the resignation of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. The timeline for the previous investigation and plea deal can be accessed here.
As with many other miscreants, Epstein is suspected of using his philanthropy as a “blind,” and early analyses of his charitable contribution and charity vehicle support that view. As Kate Briquelet of the Daily Beast puts it, “Epstein apparently needed some favorable news to change the narrative and embarked on a public relations crusade that depicted him as a renowned ‘science philanthropist,’ rather than a convicted sex offender.”
Epstein’s self-touted contributions have included gifts to American hospitals, top research universities, and children’s and youth charities. But before he tries to use this generosity as a defense in court, NBC News and the Daily Beast are reporting that their review of his records; the tax returns of his “shadowy private foundation,” Gratitude America, which operates from the Virgin Islands; and interviews with representatives of the nonprofits who received the purported gifts shows a relatively modest outlay of charitable dollars (as compared to other purported billionaires). They also found significant discrepancies between what Epstein said he gave and what was recorded as received. Some donees disputed the amounts, and others had no records of the gifts he said he made. Still others returned the funds as tainted.
Briquelet writes that among the many donations to charities listed on the tax returns of Gratitude America is $75,000 to the Cancer Research Wellness Institute. But Howard Straus, president of the organization, writes in an email that the group has “never received a donation of that magnitude from anyone…I would know.”
Straus continued, “We are perennially short of funds, and would love to be the recipient of such largesse, but not from sexual predators.”
This was not an isolated case.
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NBC News reached out to 56 charities that were listed as grant recipients in multiple press releases from Epstein’s foundation or his foundation’s IRS filings between 2010 and 2017. Thirty-two organizations did not return requests for comment. Of the 24 organizations that responded, 10 said they had no record of any donations from Epstein or Gratitude America.
For example, Epstein lists New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as a recipient of contributions from the Jeffrey Epstein Foundation between 2010 and 2012. According to a spokesperson for the museum, however, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art has not received any major donations from Jeffrey Epstein or his foundation, only that he purchased tickets to two benefits in the early 1990s.”
Other organizations that said they had no record of a donation included Duke University, Ohio State University and the Metropolitan Opera. The Elton John AIDS Foundation said it had not received a donation, but Gratitude America’s filings show a donation.
Even among those who actually did receive a gift, things were not rosy. John Steele, the publisher and editorial director of NautilusThink, says the organization did get a $25,000 donation from Epstein’s foundation in 2017, but they were now considering its return. Another group based in Haiti quickly returned the $25,000 grant it received in 2011.
Two other groups listed as getting contributions between 2010 and 2012, Harvard University and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said they had received gifts, but not in that time frame.
Epstein donated $6.5 million to Harvard in 2003. A source familiar with that donation was not aware of any additional gifts from Epstein or his foundation, despite references in Epstein foundation press releases to $30 million in donations.
Finally, making the pattern even more clear, the Daily Beast reports that Gratitude America, like the three Epstein-controlled nonprofits that preceded it, is run by three close Epstein operatives.
The wages of this kind of misuse of philanthropy, of course, are paid by the whole sector, as the public inevitably becomes ever more skeptical about the motivations of all concerned.—Ruth McCambridge