The ethics of accepting ‘anonymous’ donations from bad actors

Thanks to a comment by John Morales, I read this article by Kelsey Piper that looks at a possible justification given by MIT for why they went to such lengths to keep the money they got from sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein secret. It is an argument I had not heard before.

The obvious question: What on earth were they thinking? The MIT Media Lab — an interdisciplinary research center affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — was well regarded, well funded, had great publicity, and was attached to one of the world’s best universities. Why would they risk it all to attract donations from someone like Epstein? And how could people write emails like the ones revealed in the New Yorker piece — “jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous” — without realizing they were on the path to disaster?

On Sunday, we got a partial answer via an essay by Larry Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard Law School and the former director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He knew all along that the MIT Media Lab was taking Epstein’s money, he said. He thought it was the right thing to do. So, he says, did the team at the Media Lab.

Their justification is simple: If someone is a bad person, taking their anonymous donations is actually the best thing you can do. The money gets put to a better use, and they don’t get to accumulate prestige or connections from the donation because the public wouldn’t know about it.

This argument isn’t that eccentric. Within philanthropy, it has been seriously raised as a reasonable answer to the challenging question of how organizations should deal with donations from bad actors.

Piper then goes on to show that a little thought reveals why that argument is full of holes and that accepting secret money from awful people is bad. But even before I read it, the thought that came to me was that this defense rests entirely on the highly implausible assumption that people like Epstein and the Sacklers, who seemed to have shown an utter lack of any moral compass in their dealings, would suddenly become altruists and give away money anonymously without any expectation of a quid pro quo. Such people always use their money to further their own interests. Even if they spent a spent a year or two working in leper colonies as penance fir their past, I would still be suspicious of their motives.

I cannot imagine that Lawrence Lessig and the people at MIT could not have arrived at the conclusions that Piper did. They are not stupid. Rather, I think it more likely that they were so salivating at the prospect of getting Epstein’s money that they seized on the first seemingly plausible rationalization that came across their desks and ran with it.

David Folkenflik of NPR reports that Epstein used a number of methods including bribery and intimidation to silence negative press coverage of his activities, such as an ABC interview with one of his accusers Virginia Giuffre in 2015 that never aired.

ABC has episodically covered the scandal, yet the interview was never broadcast, and Giuffre says she was never told why. Shortly before the interview was due to air, Harvard emeritus law professor Alan Dershowitz called the network. He was also one of Epstein’s lead defense attorneys. Dershowitz said he called ABC’s producers and a lawyer to warn them against the interview with Giuffre.

Folkenflik also writes about how one New York Times reporter Landon Thomas, Jr. actually solicited and got a donation from Epstein for a charity that he only later revealed to the editors, suggesting that since Epstein was just a source for a story and not the target, that made the donation acceptable.

His editors were aghast and rejected the distinction he was trying to make. A Times spokeswoman confirms that Thomas had clearly violated the ethics policy by soliciting the donation from a source. The spokeswoman says editors benched Thomas instantly from any further professional contact with Epstein. Several Times staffers pulled Thomas’ old clips. They tell NPR they were appalled at Thomas’ 2008 profile of Epstein published just before Epstein entered jail.

Thomas wrote of Epstein gazing at the azure sea, likening himself to Gulliver, shipwrecked among the denizens of Lilliput, as he poked a lunch of crab and rare steak prepared by his personal chef. Thomas depicted a person of privilege who had gone astray, someone who solicited prostitutes not committed sex crimes against minors. Former colleagues worry that Thomas’ guidance on Epstein may have influenced how The New York Times thought about him for years. By the first week of January, Thomas was gone from the paper.

Edward Jay Epstein is another well-known journalist who was befriended by Epstein and has admitted to getting favors (including first-class plane tickets and free lodging) from him even though he knew he was a serial liar and a conman.

In Airmail, Edward recounted an early meeting with Jeffrey in 1987: “As we finished the tea, I mentioned I was leaving for Spain on Monday. ‘How do you go?’ he asked. ‘Iberia Airlines,’ I said, adding that I always flew coach. ‘If you like, I can upgrade you to first class. Much better food.’ ‘How?’ ‘Drop your ticket off with my doorman tomorrow morning. It won’t cost you a penny.’

Edward told The Daily Beast that he took advantage of Jeffrey’s plane-ticket largesse a few more times after that, until an official at a Japanese airline rejected his first-class ticket because it was bogus, and sent him back to the economy cabin.

Edward said he understood that Jeffrey somehow had gained access to various airlines’ computer systems and was able to claim first-class seats.

After the Japanese airline embarrassment, “I certainly did confront him,” Edward said, describing the fake first-class tickets as “theft of services.” “He said ‘don’t ask me anything. It works one-third of the time.’ ”

Asked if it gave him pause as a journalist to be accepting favors and freebies from a potential subject of his journalism—and one who Edward acknowledged clearly wanted to be written about—he breezily replied: “I wasn’t writing about Jeffrey, but it gave me great pause,” but only because the first-class plane tickets turned out to be fake.

There are a lot of belated mea culpas going around now. Miami Herald‘s Julie Brown, who deserves the lion’s share of credit for Epstein’s downfall by doggedly pursuing the story when others were holding back, says that Epstein “was a master at manipulating people through money… He did that with scientists all over the world and educators, academics, politicians. I think it is disheartening if, in fact, it bears out that anyone in the media was part of that.”

This is the kind of person that Lessig and the people at MIT thought would give money away truly anonymously with no expectation whatsoever of getting something in return. How gullible can they be?


  1. says

    Their justification is simple: If someone is a bad person, taking their anonymous donations is actually the best thing you can do. The money gets put to a better use, and they don’t get to accumulate prestige or connections from the donation because the public wouldn’t know about it.

    Oh, that’s “heads I win, tails you lose” -- either way it means you can take the money in good conscience. How convenient.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    That excuse fails every which way -- but if someone successfully embezzled Epstein’s money, and I sat on the jury …

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oops -- apologies for end-italics-tag html fail after “embezzled”!

    [Pierce: I corrected it-Mano]

  4. deepak shetty says

    I’m not sure why everyone thinks this is such a cut and dried situation.
    Would you always refuse tainted money for a good cause if it wasn’t used to enhance the reputation of the person? (i.e. it is always morally wrong for say an orphanage to take an anonymous donation from say a drug dealer)

  5. Mano Singham says


    It is not entirely cut and dried. There are some subtleties.

    For example, in the opioid cases, the money obtained from the people who pushed the drugs will be going towards drug prevention and treatment. So money that is obtained from bad actors because of a punishment is viewed as less problematic than a donation.

    The issue is that the kind of ‘anonymous’ donation by people like Epstein is not truly anonymous. The people at MIT knew who was giving the money even as they tried to hide it from the public and he was clearly enjoying the privileges of meeting with their scientists and others.

    Now if he had put the money in a trust that had no obvious link to him and the trust gave out the money without revealing who was funding the trust, that might be different. But with people like Epstein, you can be sure that he would at some point be let it be known that he was the ‘secret benefactor’.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Mano @ # 3 -- Thanks (again!)!

    If there exists anywhere a fund providing scholarships for, e.g., 14-y-o girls, they need to prove their money Epstein-free, stat!

  7. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Dunno. I still want to argue that it’s ok to accept the money, but I’d make damn sure that I did all I could to ensure to the public that I am in no way influenced by the bad actor, plus lots of very public and very clear condemnations of the bad actor. “Yes, I’ll take your money, but only if I get to publish lots of pieces on you in public about how bad you are, and a promise that you will not talk to me again about anything ever again, and not talk to any of my staff about anything, ever.”

    Maybe even then it’s not good enough, but I’d rather take that approach rather than take it in secret. I totally understand the rebuttals, and the rebuttals might still win. Honestly, I don’t know enough to make a decision.

  8. deepak shetty says

    Im not disagreeing , that in this specific case , the donation were parlayed for connections and access which then wouldnt be anonymous -- However you do have to take money from bad actors in many cases (Or Goodbye federal funding!) -- None of the billionaire philanthropists are clean.

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