Wexner Independent Review Deliberately Misses the Point

Author’s note: Full text of the investigation report can be found at the bottom of this post. For a previous post with more detail on Wexner’s connections to Epstein, and what Wexner is alleged to have enabled, check out my last blog post on the subject.

Yesterday the Wexner Foundation released the findings of its independent review of its connection to Jeffrey Epstein. Ever since Epstein’s arrest, there has been fierce conversation and debate within the Wexner Foundation’s internal listserv, Wexnet, about how the foundation should proceed, and how Wexner Fellows should react in the wake of the revelations.

The focus of the report, attached below in full, was on three primary questions:

1) What was the nature and extent of Epstein’s relationship and interactions with the Foundation?

2) Did Epstein make any financial contributions to the Foundation and, if so, how did the Foundation use any such contributions?

3) Did Epstein use his ties to the Foundation to commit any crimes?

Unsurprisingly the report’s answers to those questions boiled down to 1) no, 2) no, and 3) no, but let’s break that down.

First the report details the scope of the Foundation’s charitable contributions and the hundreds of millions it’s paid out over the years. It then goes on to claim that white Jeffrey Epstein was a trustee of the Foundation, he had nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the Foundation, or with the selection of Foundation Fellows. Not that anyone was expecting Epstein to have been ordering the Post-Its and paperclips anyway.

What comes next in the report we can leave to actual reporters, lawyers, and accountants to sort out, but the general gist of it seems to be a series of donations that started with Epstein and ended with Wexner, that the report explains away as being Wexner money to begin with, or technically donations made indirectly to the Wexner Foundation after passing through other charities and foundations. In other words, it’s OK that the Wexner Foundation received money from Epstein because it was just indirect enough to make it plausibly deniable.

The report ends with a statement that Epstein never used the Foundation to commit any of his crimes, and that the Foundation had no contact with Epstein since his resignation in 2007.

But what’s important to note here is not so much the findings of the report but its limited scope. The concern for many advocates was never just whether or not Jeffrey Epstein was using the Wexner Foundation as an entity to commit or enable his crimes, but whether or not Leslie Wexner, the guy whose name is on the Foundation, whose money funds 90% of its work, and whose personal reputation is laundered through the reputation of the Wexner Foundation was complicit in or aware of Epstein’s crimes.

Wexner’s relationship with Epstein goes back to 1986 when Epstein was introduced to Wexner and became his financial manager. By 1991, Epstein had power of attorney over Wexner’s assets, and was in full swing managing them on the L Brands billionaire’s behalf. For two decades Wexner was Epstein’s only publicly known client.

During that time Epstein allegedly used his connection to Wexner to pose as a talent scout for Victoria’s secret, enticing models, many of whom were children, back to his house to talk about their futures at which point he sexually assaulted them. L Brands was allegedly made aware of these assaults, and did nothing to stop them. Epstein was told to please stop claiming he was a talent scout, but was never penalized at all.

This continued for 11 years, from 1995 to 2006.

He allegedly was also sent underage models to be sexually assaulted by a modelling agency used by Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret continued using that modelling agency despite allegedly being made aware of those allegations. Wexner is also alleged to have done nothing after Epstein allegedly assaulted Maria Farmer at his Ohio home.

Throughout all this time Epstein was developing a reputation for “liking” young girls, and people were starting to take notice. At no point did Wexner indicate any inclination to fire or at least discipline Epstein even though he continued claiming to be a modeling scout for years after the initial complaints were made to L Brands.

Recently there has been increasing coverage of accusations of sexual harassment at Victoria’s Secret, a part of the L Brands company. According to reporting by the New York Times, Ed Razek, an executive at L Brands, was the subject of repeated complaints about how he tried to kiss models, get them to sit on his lap, or touched their crotches, as well as fostering a general atmosphere within the company that was hostile toward the women who worked there and made Victoria’s Secret the money making brand Wexner was making his millions off.

Wexner is alleged to have been well aware of these complaints have is also alleged to have even made inappropriate comments himself. Women who spoke to the Times described being subjected to personal and professional retaliation after disclosing the harassment they’d experienced.

Earlier in February Wexner announced he would be stepping down as CEO of L Brands amid new criticism over this history of sexual harassment.

Along with this independent review released by the Wexner Foundation, its president, Rabbi Elka Abramson, released the following statement to its membership:

Dear Members, Fellows, Alumni and Partners,

As you know, given the concerns expressed by this community, we initiated an independent review of Jeffrey Epstein’s involvement in The Wexner Foundation. The review represents what is widely regarded as best practice in cases like this and is part of our ongoing effort to be transparent and appropriately responsive. Completing this work in a thorough fashion required time.

The Columbus law firm of Kegler Brown was selected by the Foundation to conduct the review, with attorneys Chuck Kegler and Loriann Fuhrer leading the review team. Neither the Foundation nor Wexner family has worked with the Kegler Brown firm previously. The specifics of the process are detailed in the report, which is available to download here.

Listed below are several key findings from the report which, after my own reading, I believe are worth highlighting:
Epstein served as a trustee of the Foundation from 1992 to 2007 when he was terminated by the Wexners and resigned as a trustee of the Foundation.

Epstein was never involved in determining Foundation policy. He never had any role in the Foundation’s day-to-day leadership or activities. He did not have any role whatsoever in screening, identifying or selecting participants for any of our leadership initiatives. Rather, he merely acted as a functionary executing documents and facilitating the required financial support from the Wexners.

Foundation leadership have no recollection of seeing Epstein in the Foundation offices or ever attending any Foundation program or events.

There is no connection between the Foundation and any Wexner-related entity except for the bookkeeping and accounting services provided to the Foundation by the Wexner family financial office.

As previously stated, Epstein never contributed even a single dollar to financially support the work of the Foundation.

The facts regarding the YLK monies, while more complicated, are also clear. As the Wexners have stated publicly, they terminated Epstein in 2007 and severed all ties completely. At that time, a foundation, YLK, was created upon the advice of counsel.

There is no evidence that any Epstein personal, business or philanthropic funds were ever used to support the Foundation’s work.
While not included in the report, I personally asked Abigail Wexner why legal action was not pursued against Epstein once his financial misappropriation was discovered. She explained that given the financial discoveries and what the Wexners were learning about the allegations of sexual misconduct against Epstein being raised in Florida, the Wexners concluded it was in the best interest of their family to avoid ongoing litigation entanglements and to terminate all association with Epstein immediately.

You are encouraged to review the report in its entirety. Other more recent press unrelated to and not intended to be addressed by this report has generated additional conversations and questions from some of you that we are considering. We also are taking time to reflect on the report and review and assess best practices of philanthropic governance. We continue to seek and appreciate your patience even as we welcome all of your feedback.

Finally, together with the entire Foundation team, I thank you for your impassioned belief in our work, your high expectations of us as an organization, and most of all for your continuing leadership in your Jewish communities and the State of Israel.

Let us all move from strength, through every challenge and back to even greater strength,

Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson
President
The Wexner Foundation

Again, this statement and the report as a whole ignores the actual point here. This isn’t about whether or not Epstein himself used the foundation for his crimes, this is about whether a man who allegedly enabled the wholesale trafficking of children for sex, allegedly deliberately turned a blind eye against Epstein’s Victims when made aware of how Epstein was abusing his position to facilitate his crimes, and who allegedly deliberately ignored rampant sexual harassment and retaliation against its victims within his companies, should be allowed to launder his money through the fantastic work done by the incredible leaders funded by the Wexner Foundation.

Because there is no separating the donor from his actions. Many rich philanthropists use the money they donate lavishly to charity to mask the real harm they’re doing or enabling to real people every day. The Sacklers did it for decades, and are only very recently being held to account. But an important thing to note about the dangers of this reputational laundering through Wexner money: Given how many of our current and future leaders are being funded by Wexner money, it’s safe to wonder whether or not these people who might otherwise be inclined to speak out against the enabling of child sex trafficking, and rampant sexual harassment are equally inclined to decry it when doing so would bite the hand that feeds them?

The issue is not whether retroactively we have to worry about whether or not the money ever touched Epstein, but whether or not going forward the money the Wexners give through their foundation will silence those who want to hold them accountable for what they’ve allegedly enabled.

I have spoken to many Wexner Fellows in the months following the renewed controversy, and many of them have mixed feelings about how to relate to their own participating in the fellowship in the past, and whether or not to accept money in the future from them. I’ve had many similar conversations with beneficiaries of similarly controversial organizations in the past, with varying degrees of discomfort, but what makes the conversation around Wexner and the Wexner Foundation different is the sheer avalanche of money involved. It changes people, changes their attitudes, and changes the ways in which they’re willing to criticize organizations they find to be problematic.

At the end of the day I’ll reiterate my guiding principle:

The second an institution becomes more important than the people it’s there to serve, it no longer deserves to exist.

I call upon the Wexner Foundation to expand its investigation to include not only the narrow scope of Epstein and what his role may have been in the foundation, but also Leslie and Abigail Wexner themselves, what they may have known about or enabled, and whether or not it is ethical to be led by people who may have been able to stop an international sex trafficker but didn’t.

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