Days after announcing his intent to stay at the MIT Media Lab and begin a process of “restorative healing,” Joichi Ito, its director, has resigned over his ties to financier and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The announcement comes less than a day after damning new allegations from the New Yorker and the New York Times that Ito’s ties to Epstein were more extensive and secretive than he’d previously admitted.
On August 15, Ito, who had led the prestigious research organization since 2011, apologized for taking research funding from Epstein over a number of years, claiming that he did so with the full support of the university. But the New Yorker and the New York Times, using information from a whistleblower who used to work at the Media Lab, have now reported that he took far more money than previously disclosed and covered up Epstein’s more extensive ties to the lab, even though Epstein was listed as a “disqualified” donor by MIT.
Epstein was convicted in 2008 of procuring an underage girl for prostitution. After a 2018 investigation by the Miami Herald reopened the case, revealing that the convictions had belied a much wider sexual assault and sex trafficking operation, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in July. He died by suicide in his jail cell in August.
After the initial disclosures that the Media Lab had taken Epstein’s money, Ito had received both support and calls to resign from prominent members of the technology community. The new revelations have since shocked several initial supporters, leading at least one to publicly apologize.
I'm mortified at the story and still processing it. I regret not having written up my own thoughts last week, instead of signing someone else's letter, even as I might be revisiting whatever else I would have written, too, right now.— Jonathan Zittrain (@zittrain) September 7, 2019
In an internal meeting at the lab, on September 4, Ito admitted to having taken $525,000 from Epstein for the Media Lab and an additional $1.2 million for his private ventures. But the New Yorker article, published on September 6, alleged that the lab had taken at least $7.5 million from two other donors, private equity mogul Leon Black and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, that was channeled through Epstein. (A spokesperson for Gates says that “any claim that Epstein directed any programmatic or personal grantmaking for Bill Gates is completely false.”) It said that Ito had solicited funding directly from Epstein and that he and his staff had systematically worked to scrub Epstein’s name from donations so they wouldn’t be scrutinized or blocked by MIT at large.
Emails provided to the New Yorker and the New York Times by Signe Swenson, a former development associate at the Media Lab, showed Ito, along with Peter Cohen, a former development official at the lab, acknowledging that Epstein’s money needed to remain anonymous. Swenson told the New Yorker that she had repeatedly expressed her discomfort with the lab’s ties to Epstein, but was told that “we’re planning to do it anyway.”
In his apology, Ito had also stated that he “never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that [Epstein] was accused of.” But in 2015, Epstein visited the Media Lab, accompanied by two young women who looked like models, Swenson told the New Yorker. According to Swenson, Ito was also well aware of Epstein’s desire to be accompanied, telling Cohen that Epstein “never goes into any room without his two female ‘assistants.’” Ito told the New York Times that the New Yorker report was “full of factual errors,” but he didn't elaborate further.
While the new revelations are particularly damning for Ito and Cohen, they also highlight the systemic problem surrounding the Epstein funding. The hidden ties with Epstein were so widely known at the Media Lab that staff in Ito’s office began to call him “he who must not be named” or “Voldemort,” according to the New Yorker. Questions also remain about how the donations evaded detection by MIT. According to a statement by its president, Rafael Reif, in August, “decisions about gifts are always subject to longstanding Institute processes and principles.”
The details underscore what many researchers at the Media Lab and in the broader tech community have emphasized since the Epstein revelations: that while this episode is an extreme case, it is symptomatic of the lack of transparency around the close-knit relationships between academic institutions and an elite network of donors.
In an MIT-wide email today, Reif announced Ito’s resignation and said that he had asked the Institute’s general counsel to engage “a prominent law firm” to conduct an independent investigation. An internal investigation into MIT’s fund-raising processes and policies, announced last month, is still ongoing.
Ito, Cohen, and MIT did not immediately respond to direct requests for comment.
Disclosure: Among his other duties, Ito was on the board of MIT Technology Review. After resigning from MIT, he submitted his resignation from the board as well.