“I felt like my job was to protect secrets,” says Signe Swenson, who last week emerged as key witness in the relationship between disgraced financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and its former head Joi Ito.
Ito resigned last week after a picture emerged of institutional efforts to accept and cover up substantial philanthropic donations from Epstein that threaten to devastate the reputation of the famed technology-research centre.
It was a story of powerful men and huge amounts of money. But its exposure, and the resultant scandal and house-cleaning at one of the world’s most renowned academic institutions, was at least in part down to the bravery of one female whistle-blower.
In an interview with the Guardian, Swenson, a former development associate and alumni coordinator at the lab, said that when she took the job canvassing potential MIT donors, Swenson was told one of her duties would be “to help the existing relationship between Joi Ito and Jeffrey Epstein along”. Then three months into her job she was directed to “wipe every trace of Epstein from the university’s record”.
That order was Swenson’s first clue that the Media Lab’s relationship with Epstein, who killed himself in a jailhouse suicide after being arrested on sex-trafficking charges in July, was highly sensitive to the institution. As it would turn out, the link was so sensitive that toxic fallout at the Media Lab has proven to far-ranging and ongoing.
Last week, the scandal claimed Ito, who secured at least $7.5m in donations from Epstein or a circle of donors connected to him, including Bill Gates and Apollo Global Management ’s Leon Black. He had previously claimed the lab only received $525,000 in Epstein donations and that had been just an “error in judgement”.
This week, Brown University also announced the suspension of Peter Cohen, a fundraising director who reportedly helped cover up Epstein’s connections when he was working as the Media Lab’s director of development, despite MIT listing Epstein as “disqualified” in its donor database.
Brown claims the fundraising practices at MIT were “authorized by and implemented with the full knowledge of MIT central administration” – a claim that the woman who blew the whistle on MIT finds hard to believe.
The directive, Swenson recalls, came after Epstein gave a relatively small gift – “50 or a hundred thousand dollars” – to help restore a Rothko painting. Three months later he unexpectedly acknowledged the gift in a press release.
He was, Swenson believes, “showing Joi that he had to keep him happy”. “He was saying to Joi, ‘I can destroy you by telling people you know me.’”
“We were all frantic,” Swenson recalls. “The MIT press office reached out to investigate. They were wanting to refute or play down what he’d said. If it came out, Joi was ready to call Epstein to ask him to take it down.”
In that event, the press release was not widely picked up so there was no need to spring into action.
But in the larger picture, Swenson said she finds Ito’s denial that he ever saw anything suspicious over the course of his long friendship with Epstein, including trips to Epstein’s homes in New York, the Caribbean and New Mexico “implausible”.
According to Swenson, who witnessed Epstein’s visit to the lab accompanied by two eastern European “assistants”, Ito and his colleagues were “at best complicit in denying a problem”.
“I don’t want to think about the worst,” she says. “Joi spent time in Epstein’s homes and regularly socialized with him. It felt like bringing these two women everywhere, especially to scientific meetings, was a distraction. And the idea that they thought nothing was underfoot is impossible to believe.”
Swenson now recognizes that Epstein was “using the lab as a social thing and he knew that academics would be weak for money”. Beyond that,” she says, “it’s hard to think further.”
Swenson says that a “small group of women in the office realized this was wrong, that this should not be happening, and that Epstein should not be running around MIT ”.The women had a name for Epstein: Voldemort.
After working at the lab for three years, Swenson stepped away when, she says, “she realized her opinions and those of other women at the lab who had expressed discomfort at Epstein’s visits and efforts to obscure his donation would not be heard.
“I realized that the job was never going to be what I wanted it to be,” she concluded.
Swenson first came forward to the New Yorker earlier this month. She produced emails that showed MIT had grossly underplayed the relationship with Epstein and the sums that he had given, or directed to be given, to the institution.
The university said that it received $800,000 from Epstein’s foundations over 25 years. MIT president Rafael Reif, wrote, “with hindsight, we recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts. No apology can undo that.”
Ito disclosed that he had separately received $1.2m from Epstein for investment funds under his control, in addition to $525,000 he’d donated to the lab.
But the New Yorker story blew that limited admission and apology out of the water. Reif called the relationship “deeply disturbing” and announced a “thorough and independent investigation” by an outside law firm. Ito’s resignation followed soon after.
Swenson’s decision to come forward, she says, came after Epstein was arrested in early July. She recognized that the discomfort she felt, specifically around the women Epstein brought with him to the lab, were well founded. She wondered if they had on some level been kidnapped.
“I thought: “Thank God he’s been arrested”. At last they can figure out how he’s getting away with all this. When Epstein committed suicide I felt heartbroken for his victims. That’s so convenient that the truth won’t need to come out now.”
Her disgust mounted when she saw MIT’s director of the Center for Civic Media, Ethan Zuckerman resign saying the lab’s dealings with Epstein had compromised its values, followed by the weakness of Ito’s admission and president Reif’s letter essentially saying no one would be held to account.
“I fully saw MIT closing ranks, protecting their own, and letting out just enough information to apologize and offer some atonement – protect and hope the story died. They could just go on with the values of restorative justice that Joi had proposed.”
Swenson holds that the lab should return the full amount of money that came via Epstein.
“Money is just the start,” she says. “There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen, for sure. But anything short of MIT being fully transparent is not good enough. Epstein is the extreme example but he’s not the only bad actor.”
If there’s any explanation for the lapse in judgement, she says, it might be that MIT was in the midst of a campaign to raise $5bn – the largest of its history. “The pressure was on to meet that goal above all else,” Swenson says.
If any good can come out of the MIT-Epstein debacle, Swenson hopes, it is that, with Ito gone, the faculty will be able to go through a “transition” that will start when MIT starts listening to women in the faculty.
“I saw women at the lab speak out and their word meant nothing because Joi refused to admit the truth,” Swenson says. “For those women who stuck around, I hope they are given some control and influence over the Media Lab and to shape it into something more equitable and safe. If they just start listening to the women it’ll be a very different place.”