LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The fallout continues from revelations that billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein solicited millions of dollars in donations for MIT that the school tried to hide. Epstein killed himself in jail last month while facing federal sex-trafficking charges. The extent of his financial relationship with MIT was first reported in The New Yorker by Ronan Farrow, who relied, in part, on a whistleblower, Signe Swenson. I spoke with her earlier this weekend.
Joi Ito, the director of MIT's Media Lab, resigned Saturday, hours after Ronan Farrow's reporting published. How are you feeling?
SIGNE SWENSON: I think I'm - hold on - need to take a deep breath for a moment. Sorry.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's OK.
SWENSON: I am feeling...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is this a hard question to answer, if I may ask?
SWENSON: Yeah. Well, I felt like I was obligated to the information and that I put myself second 'cause it was bigger than me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Swenson was in her mid-20s when she started working in development at MIT. And in Jeffrey Epstein's donor file, there was a link to an article about his 2008 conviction for sex crimes. A few years later, she applied for a job at the university's Media Lab, which was run by Joi Ito. Peter Cohen was the director of development.
SWENSON: When I applied for the job and began talking with Peter Cohen about the job, it was described to me that Joi has a relationship with Jeffrey Epstein and that they were cultivating him as a donor to the lab.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And do you remember what your thoughts were then, considering you were aware of his conviction?
SWENSON: Yeah. I told Peter Cohen that he was a convicted pedophile, that this was well-known. And I said, it's a terrible idea. But he ultimately said that this was Joi's relationship and, essentially, would be in the realm of my responsibilities to help aid that relationship on.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did he express any reservations to you about that, or did anyone else?
SWENSON: That specific moment - I'm not quite sure he said that. But he did agree with me at different points that this was not an ideal situation, that, you know, he may have made a different choice if it had been up to him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The New Yorker describes a number of ways in which MIT tried to conceal the Epstein connection. Direct contributions were recorded as anonymous. Other donations Epstein directed were obscured. And they recorded calendar entries with just his initials. In 2015, Epstein made a visit to the Media Lab office in Cambridge, Mass., where Swenson worked.
SWENSON: We were told beforehand that this would need to be a very confidential visit and to keep things quiet. But we were warned ahead of time that Epstein never goes anywhere without two women at his side. And they looked young, definitely looked like models. And we just knew, given the track record, that there's a possibility this was not their choice, that they are not traveling around with him voluntarily. We made sure that, you know, if they needed anything, we were there. And, you know, we tried to make them feel safe enough to say something and, you know, to the point that we actually checked the trash to see if they had written anything on a napkin. It just seemed like such an obvious...
SWENSON: It was - yeah - obviously problematic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When did you decide to resign? And was it because of Epstein's involvement at MIT?
SWENSON: It was definitely in part. I love the lab. And there are a lot of great people and great things happening. But it just felt like my job was to protect other people's secrets. And it wasn't to further the mission of the lab.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Listening to you, it really sounds like you've been struggling with what was happening at MIT Media Lab.
SWENSON: Yeah. I felt like I was complicit, that, ultimately, I was powerless to actually change anything. But I - I'm not proud of having protected a pedophile from scrutiny. And I'm hoping that people who read the articles and hear this story realize that they're sitting on information that could help piece together a picture because this is just one part of a very complex conspiracy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Signe Swenson, a former employee of the MIT Media Lab. MIT announced yesterday that it is hiring an outside firm to conduct an investigation into Epstein's connections to the department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.