BVAC donor Leon Black ’73 under scrutiny for ties to Jeffrey Epstein

by Emily Lu | 10/23/20 2:10am

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by Andrew Chen / The Dartmouth

Leon Black ’73, a former College Trustee and namesake of the Black Family Visual Arts Center, maintained a business relationship with the late financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein even after Epstein was first convicted of sex-related crimes in 2008, according to a report by The New York Times. Black is facing subpoenas from U.S. Virgin Islands officials as part of their investigation into Epstein’s estate.

The New York Times report revealed that Black, the billionaire co-founder of the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, paid Epstein at least $50 million from 2012 to 2017 — after Epstein pleaded guilty to charges of solicitation of prostitution and solicitation of prostitution from a minor in Florida in June 2008. Black served on the College’s Board of Trustees from 2002 until 2011. College spokesperson Diana Lawrence confirmed that Black has donated to Dartmouth personally, as well as through his family foundation. His donations have supported initiatives including BVAC — the $48-million visual arts building that houses the studio art and film and media studies departments — and two endowed professorships.

Epstein was an original trustee of the Leon and Debra Black Family Foundation, which was created in 1997. He departed from the foundation in 2007 — about a decade before facing federal charges for leading a sex trafficking operation involving dozens of teenage girls.

“Mr. Black was completely unaware of — and continues to be appalled by — the reprehensible conduct that surfaced at the end of 2018 and which led to the federal criminal charges brought against Mr. Epstein,” a spokesperson for Black wrote in an email statement to The Dartmouth.

According to the foundation’s public tax filings from 2001 to 2018, Dartmouth received money from Black’s family foundation in 2001, 2002 and 2004 — before Epstein’s conviction — as well as in 2014, after Epstein’s departure from the foundation. The foundation’s donations to the College have totaled about $7.5 million since 2001.

Black’s most notable gift to the College came in 2012 as a personal donation from himself and his wife — rather than from the family foundation — when they gave $48 million to establish BVAC.

In an email statement to The Dartmouth, the College’s senior vice president of advancement Robert Lasher ’88 wrote that the College has never received or accepted a donation directly from Epstein and has found no evidence that “he played a role in any gift to Dartmouth.”

Lawrence did not comment on the amount or distribution of Black’s donations to the College, noting that “Dartmouth does not disclose the details of private donor gifts.” She added that the College is not planning to change BVAC’s name at this time.

“We have a gift acceptance policy that defines the principles by which gifts will be accepted and reserves the right to revoke a commitment regarding a naming. Given what we know at the moment, and with the Apollo review underway, there has been no discussion about removing the Black family name from the Visual Arts Center,” Lawrence wrote.

At Black’s request, a group of Apollo’s board members will independently review Black’s relationship with Epstein. The board’s conflict-committee members hired a law firm on Tuesday to confirm information Black has provided about his ties to Epstein.  

The extent of Epstein’s involvement in the Leon and Debra Black Family Foundation remains unclear. According to public Form 990-PF tax filings from the family foundation, Epstein served as a director until 2012. However, a spokesperson for Black claimed that Epstein was asked to step down in July 2007 and that he appeared on these tax forms for another five years due to a recording error.

According to a spokesperson for Black, Epstein “played no operational role” within the family foundation.

“[Epstein] never managed or controlled any funds managed by Mr. Black and never had discretionary authority to use any funds managed by Mr. Black to make charitable donations,” a spokesperson for Black wrote.

Other contributions from Black to Dartmouth include two professorships in Shakespearean Studies and Jewish Studies. Jonathan Crewe, the Leon D. Black Professor in Shakespearean Studies, said that Black is “very hands-off” with the endowed professorship in his name. 

Lasher wrote that charitable gifts are reviewed under an institutional gift acceptance policy, which is “regularly reviewed and approved by the Board of Trustees.” Philanthropic advisor Doug White ’75 said that in general, a clear policy on which donations charities will accept is important “today more than ever.”

White said that institutions like Dartmouth “have to take a lot of care in their gift acceptance policies to ask questions.” He added that “It’s really hard to know where money is coming from. … [They] need to have that kind of system in place to find out the source of money.”

Virgin Islands Attorney General Denise George has filed subpoenas for financial transactions and communication between Black and Epstein, as well as financial statements from Black’s entities. The civil subpoena is a part of George’s larger investigation into Epstein’s estate. George alleges that the late financier carried out sex trafficking schemes on a privately-owned island in the territory and concealed unlawful conduct from Virgin Islands officials.

Black wrote in an August 2019 email to Apollo’s limited partners that “Apollo has never done any business with Mr. Epstein at any point in time.” Black said that Epstein has only given advice about tax strategy, estate planning and philanthropy to Black’s family entities. In a separate letter to Apollo’s limited partners, reviewed by The Dartmouth, Black wrote that he “deeply regret[s] having had any involvement with [Epstein],” and he “intend[s] to cooperate fully” with requests from the Virgin Islands Attorney General.