The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Council on Foreign Relations, another beneficiary of Epstein largesse, grapples with how to handle his donations

The late financier Jeffrey Epstein contributed $350,000 to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The late financier Jeffrey Epstein contributed $350,000 to the Council on Foreign Relations. (Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

In his 15 years as a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, Jeffrey Epstein attended only two events — a dinner for big donors in 1998 and a 2002 conversation with Paul O’Neill when he was U.S. treasury secretary during the George W. Bush administration.

But Epstein had given the council $350,000 over a decade of membership in the group’s top-level donor category, the Chairman’s Circle, and council leaders now acknowledge that they never discussed what to do about Epstein’s donations after he pleaded guilty to sex crimes in 2008.

“I deeply regret that his conviction did not automatically trigger a review of his membership status,” council president Richard Haass wrote in a note to council members last month.

His email, which was obtained by The Washington Post, made no mention of whether the council ever considered returning or redirecting Epstein’s donations, as some other nonprofits did after his 2008 conviction or his arrest this summer on federal charges of sexually abusing dozens of girls.

On Monday, council spokeswoman Lisa Shields responded to The Post’s inquiry about the gifts with a statement saying that the council is “examining ways to allocate resources equivalent to Epstein’s donations to relevant work, such as our InfoGuide on Modern Slavery,” which looks at human trafficking, and a Women and Foreign Policy Program, which produces reports on issues such as sexual violence in conflict and child marriage.

The council is the latest institution now confronting questions about how it handled contributions from Epstein, who officials say hanged himself in a New York jail cell last month while awaiting trial.

At least eight jail officials knew Jeffrey Epstein was not to be left alone in cell

The wealthy financier devoted extensive energy to forging connections with some of the nation’s top academic and policy figures, plying top-shelf institutions with big donations in a quest for intellectual credibility even as prosecutors say he targeted dozens of girls.

That effort to win favor extended to the nation’s foreign policy establishment as well as to top universities and leading scientists.

Epstein was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose 5,000 members include many big names in the business, government and media elites, from 1995 until 2009, at least two years after he came under investigation for sexual abuse of minors, according to council donor lists and Haass’s memo.

Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to two felony offenses, including soliciting a minor, and served 13 months in county jail in West Palm Beach, Fla.

His council membership was eventually revoked not because of his indictment or conviction but “on the basis of nonpayment of dues,” according to Haass’s memo.

“We did not connect the news [of Epstein’s conviction] with Epstein’s membership,” Shields said. “But we should have. This is why we are looking into our policies and procedures.”

Haass said in his memo that Epstein participated in council activities only rarely. The council president also said that Epstein’s longtime friend, Ghislaine Maxwell, who has been accused by victims of procuring girls for him, was not a member of the council, but participated in two of the group’s events “in her capacity as the head of a foundation focused on oceans governance.”

Epstein’s donations to universities reveal a painful truth about philanthropy

New members of the foreign policy council are nominated by existing members. Council officials declined to identify who nominated Epstein, saying they do not make public the names of nominators for any particular candidate.

Two members of the council’s board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about this issue, said they were confident that the organization did not make a decision to keep Epstein on its membership list despite his indictment or conviction but rather failed to pay attention to the news about his crimes.

Haass said in his memo that the council will create “new procedures . . . so that anything along these lines does not happen again.” He is expected to raise the issue at the council’s next board meeting, next month.

Until 2006, Epstein donated faithfully each year to the council at its highest level of donors, a group of a few dozen members who gave at least $25,000 a year, according to the council’s donor rosters.

Epstein’s fellow donors at that level included people such as ABC News executive Roone Arledge, New York Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, and fellow financiers and Wall Street figures David Rockefeller, Henry Kravis, Maurice Greenberg and Leon Black.

Epstein also made large donations to universities such as Harvard and MIT over the last two decades of his life.

The head of MIT’s Media Lab resigned Saturday and stepped down from the boards of several organizations following revelations that the lab accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Epstein.

MIT Media Lab director resigns after new report on hidden ties to Jeffrey Epstein

MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said last month that the school would donate to charities for Epstein’s victims or other sexual abuse victims an amount matching the $800,000 that Epstein gave MIT through the years.

Harvard, which received far more from Epstein, including a single donation of $6.5 million in 2003, has made no such pledge. Harvard officials said in 2006, after Epstein first faced sex crime charges, that it would not return his gifts.

Although most nonprofits do not scour their donor lists to determine whether contributors have committed crimes, many organizations do pay extra attention to the backgrounds of major donors, according to researchers who have studied American philanthropy.

Many groups have established policies for avoiding “tainted money” and returning or redirecting gifts under some conditions.

Although the council took no action against Epstein because of his crimes, the foreign policy organization did act against another member who was convicted of bank and wire fraud.

In 2010, Hassan Nemazee, a wealthy investor who donated large sums to Democratic campaigns and served as Hillary Clinton’s national finance chairman in 2008, pleaded guilty to four fraud charges in a scheme to defraud banks of about $300 million.

Nemazee was a council member, and after his conviction, “we received a letter from the U.S. government,” Shields said, “informing us that [money] that Nemazee had given to CFR was illegally obtained. So we returned that money to the government.” Shields said the council forfeited $167,463 to federal authorities.

But in the case of Kenneth I. Starr, a council member and New York money manager who was convicted of running a $35 million Ponzi scheme, council officials were not aware of any return or redirection of his donations.

Shields said the council has dealt with questions about gifts from members who are convicted of crimes “on a case-by-case basis” but will now seek to set a clear policy on such matters.