Renowned Israeli designer caught up in Epstein donations scandal

Prof. Neri Oxman of MIT’s Media Lab was among the top managers and researchers to quietly accept money from the disgraced financier

MIT professor Neri Oxman. (Flickr/Joi Ito/CC BY)
MIT professor Neri Oxman. (Flickr/Joi Ito/CC BY)

An American-Israeli professor of design at one of the most highly regarded technology schools in the world has become embroiled in the growing scandal surrounding researchers and administrators who had quietly accepted money from convicted sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Some $125,000 were gifted by Epstein to Prof. Neri Oxman’s Mediated Matter research group at MIT’s prestigious Media Lab.

“I regret having received funds from Epstein, and deeply apologize to my students for their inadvertent involvement in this mess,” Oxman wrote in a Friday statement cited by the Boston Globe.

Oxman, 43, first met Epstein when the financier, who had already served prison time for sex offenses involving underage girls, was invited to the Media Lab by its director Joi Ito in October 2015 to meet researchers, the Globe reported.

Ito, who resigned last week from the lab and from his teaching post at MIT over the scandal, had known about Epstein’s past when he sought donations from him, and had pushed researchers at the lab to keep quiet about the donor’s identity.

This March 28, 2017 photo provided by the New York State Sex Offender Registry shows Jeffrey Epstein. (New York State Sex Offender Registry via AP, File)

Epstein killed himself in jail on August 10 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. Federal prosecutors in New York had charged the 66-year-old with sex trafficking and conspiracy, alleging he sexually abused girls over several years in the early 2000s.

Last week, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said the university had received some $800,000 from Epstein over two decades, but a New Yorker report found that Epstein had arranged at least $7.5 million in donations, including $2 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and $5.5 million from investor Leon Black.

Oxman, a celebrated Israeli designer famous for incorporating elements of biology into her architecture and design work, said she was told by Ito to keep the donation under wraps.

The 2015 meeting was “the first and only time I met Epstein,” Oxman said in the Friday statement.

“Joi assured me that Epstein was an approved donor who wished to devote his fortune to science and technology, in part to make amends for wrongs he committed earlier in his life.”

The MIT Media Lab. (YouTube screen capture)

Epstein was listed as “disqualified” in MIT’s donor database, but university administrators had approved requests from Media Lab director Ito to take his money, according to media reports last week.

Oxman said she was told by the university not to disclose the source of Epstein’s gifts “so as to not enhance his reputation by association with MIT, and with the understanding that he would not be considered a sponsor of our group’s research or have any involvement in how the funds were spent.”

According to the Globe, Oxman’s lab went beyond the regular protocol for donors, producing at Ito’s request a grapefruit-size 3D-printed marble as a donor gift for the financier that was mailed to his Manhattan apartment.

The gift drew concerns from some students in Oxman’s lab, and emails obtained by the Globe showed Oxman was aware of the concerns and of Epstein’s past.

The university has hired an outside law firm, Goodwin Procter, to investigate the full scope of its involvement with Epstein.

Former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito. (Wikipedia/CC BY)

MIT wasn’t the only prestigious academic institution to become ensnared in the scandal.

On Thursday, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow said the school was reviewing donations from Epstein and would donate all unspent funds to victims of sexual crimes.

Bacow said Harvard received nearly $9 million from Epstein between 1998 and 2007, but rejected a gift after Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida.

Most of Epstein’s donations have been spent, but a remaining $186,000 will be given to groups benefiting victims of sexual crimes, he said.

Epstein’s July 6 arrest drew national attention, particularly focusing on a deal that allowed him to plead guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida and avoid more serious federal charges. He served 13 months in prison on charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution.

Epstein was a wealth manager who hobnobbed with the rich, famous and influential, including presidents and a prince. He owned a private island in the Caribbean, homes in Paris and New York City, a New Mexico ranch and a fleet of high-price cars.

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