Commentary

Jeffrey Epstein's Gruesome Legacy Ensnares M.I.T. Media Lab

The Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency helped to establish the idea that the cover-up is worse than the crime.

Joi Ito didn’t commit a crime as the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, but his efforts to conceal financial connections to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein had practically the same effect on the research center.

Former director Ito resigned from the M.I.T. Media Lab and the board of The New York Times less than a day after The New Yorker published a bombshell report by Ronan Farrow, who won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on alleged sexual misconduct by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The story described how Ito and other media lab officials took steps to hide their relationship with Epstein, who was listed as a “disqualified” donor after pleading guilty in 2008 to a sex charge involving a minor in Florida. Last month, Epstein killed himself in a Manhattan jail cell while facing federal sex-trafficking charges.

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Ito served as an affable and charismatic head of the M.I.T. Media Lab, which has an annual operating budget of $80 million, since 2011. The research facility has been credited with incubating groundbreaking technologies that become mass-market products, such as touchscreens, GPS software and wearable gadgets.

Emails obtained by Farrow show that Ito solicited a donation from Epstein, then asked a member of his staff to record the gift as “anonymous” in September 2014, six years after Epstein’s conviction.

Epstein also helped to secure a $2 million donation from Bill Gates, the billionaire cofounder of Microsoft, Ito said in an email in October 2014. A spokesperson for Gates denied the claim that Epstein directed any grant-making on behalf of Gates.

Ito’s resignation won’t necessarily bring closure to the M.I.T. Media Lab’s acceptance of gifts from Epstein or his connections. The university’s president, L. Rafael Reif, stated that he asked the university’s legal team to hire outside lawyers to conduct “an immediate, thorough and independent investigation.”

Ito should have cut all ties with Epstein years ago and adhered to M.I.T.'s policy of not soliciting or accepting gifts from the convicted sex offender. M.I.T.'s investigation into the matter may unearth additional behavior by the research center's management that is cause for termination — and serve as a warning to others.

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