CNN Exclusive: The rise of the Jeffrey Epstein mystique
In the days before Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent suicide early Saturday morning, one of his closest associates, billionaire retail magnate Leslie Wexner, the founder and chairman of L Brands, Inc. went public with a shocking allegation.
In a letter to his charitable foundation, Wexner wrote that Epstein, who’d been his right hand and had power of attorney over his finances, had “misappropriated vast sums” of money from Wexner and his family more than a decade ago—more than $46 million according to The Wall Street Journal.
In his letter, Wexner claimed to be “embarrassed” to have been duped.
The admission raised more questions than it answered: Did Wexner go to the authorities with these claims? And if not, why not? What was the nature of the two men’s relationship? And why had he given Epstein so much control over his finances in the first place?
So much about Epstein’s life (and now his death as well) remains shrouded in mystery. Here was a man of enormous means, with no college degree, no brokers’ license, whose reputation as a financial savant seemed grounded not in any concrete evidence but in the extensive network of powerful people he had cultivated over the years. It remains striking that for someone of such wealth (his fortune was reportedly estimated at half a billion dollars) no one could ever truly say (including Epstein himself) how he actually made his money.
“Nothing about Jeffrey Epstein makes sense, including his death,” said Steven Hoffenberg, Epstein’s former friend and business partner and a convicted fraudster who served 18 years in prison for bilking investors out of $460 million in a ponzi scheme. Since getting out of prison in 2013 Hoffenberg has widely claimed, including to CNN, that it was Epstein who masterminded the whole thing.
Last year, victims of Hoffenberg’s firm, Towers Financial, sued Epstein for restitution of alleged misappropriated funds.
Before his death, it was widely believed that the criminal case brought against Epstein on sex-trafficking charges might finally shed light on the many unanswered questions that surrounded him. That included not just getting to the bottom of the extensive sexual abuse allegations that dogged him, but also examining the darker corners of his rarefied social network that encompassed some of the world’s most powerful people in business, finance, politics and academia.
It was this network after all that gave Epstein his ultimate power and prestige and, until recently, seemed to have made him almost untouchable.
While there are certainly secrets that died with Jeffrey Epstein, some answers may yet come to light.
On Saturday afternoon, Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York who brought the criminal sex trafficking charges against Epstein in July, indicated that while the criminal case against Epstein is over, federal prosecutors still intend to investigate charges that are part of the indictment, including conspiracy.
“Our investigation of the conduct charged in the indictment — which included a conspiracy count — remains ongoing,” Berman said in a statement.
In the weeks following Epstein’s July 6 arrest, and in the hours after his death, people in his social circle in the Hamptons, Epstein’s target audience, focused in on the word “conspiracy,” and what that might mean for a handful of his most exclusive connections.
Within those rarefied orbits, the mystery behind Epstein’s relationship with Wexner is considered to be among the most important to unravel; so too is that of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite and Epstein’s alleged madam, who was not given immunity in Epstein’s non-prosecution-deal of 2007. Maxwell was named in a 2015 civil suit by Virginia Giuffre, an alleged Epstein victim, as the person who introduced Giuffre to Epstein.
The defamation case was settled in 2017, after the judge had ruled against a motion for summary judgment filed by Maxwell.
The rise of Epstein’s mystique
The irony of Epstein’s influence is that he was a deliberately enigmatic figure, who thrived on telling stories about himself that were hard to believe by people who, regardless, kept him close, including Wexner.
“Everything, the money, the girls — it was all a game to him,” an Epstein friend who received almost daily financial advice from him told CNN. “It was like a chain. He took money from the rich people he cultivated, charmed, bribed; and in turn he paid women to do what he asked them. In the end it was all about the money, the power that money gave him.”
In under a decade, Epstein went from tutoring the daughter of Bear Stearns chairman Alan “Ace” Greenberg to rising to become a limited partner with the firm while still in his twenties, advising their wealthiest clients and forming a close alliance with both Greenberg and then CEO James Cayne.
Though he was asked to leave Bear Stearns in the early 1980s, his rise to achieve the vast trappings of wealth was as rapid as it was unconventional. Epstein sold himself as a money manager exclusively to billionaires– but it was unclear who his clients were — other than Wexner — and Hoffenberg, about whom he was much less public.
Part of Epstein’s schtick was to be low key in his dress and showy in his home, where he displayed photographs of the important people he associated with. A recent visitor to Epstein’s house saw “numerous” photographs of Epstein with former President Bill Clinton, as well as photographs of himself with his arm around the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Within the last two years, Epstein separately told four confidants that he was advising the Saudi Crown Prince on financial matters. A close adviser to the Crown Prince denied this, as did a Saudi official who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity. “The claim that Mr. Epstein was advising HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on financial matters is without foundation,” the official said.
Epstein would also tell people he was making money for various African dictators, according to two Epstein confidants, who said that people who heard this were skeptical. “I wondered if he photo-shopped the pictures,” one of those confidants told CNN.
Other people’s money
For many, Epstein played fast and loose with other people’s money.
Two former Sotheby’s executives confirmed an instance to CNN where Wexner claimed that Epstein made money for him in highly questionable circumstances. In 1994, Sotheby’s, where Wexner was a board director, was in negotiations to buy the site of the former Alexander’s department store in Manhattan, now the site of Bloomberg LP’s headquarters.
Since the talks were non-public, Sotheby’s directors were warned to make no transactions with their stock to avoid suggestions of insider trading, the two executives said.
Yet public financial records show that that same year Wexner sold more than a million shares. A. Alfred Taubman, Sotheby’s then-chairman who died in 2015, told one of the former Sotheby’s executives, that he was furious with Wexner for trading while the real estate deal was pending.
Records show that Wexner left the board the next year, after, according to the Sotheby’s source, Taubman asked him to. According to this source, when Taubman questioned Wexner about the sale, Wexner professed ignorance and blamed Epstein for the transactions.
A spokesperson for Wexner declined to comment. Wexner has not been charged with any crimes. According to a people familiar with the matter, he has hired one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in New York, Mary Jo White, who is a partner at law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and is the former US attorney in Manhattan.
The Social network
Epstein’s financial success was dependent on the vast, eclectic social network which enabled him to throw dinners at his house where he could introduce academics to politicians and financiers and royalty — and of course, women. In this regard Epstein appears to have received considerable assistance from the British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of the late Robert Maxwell, a British tycoon who died in mysterious circumstances in 1991, disappearing off his yacht. It was posthumously discovered that Maxwell committed a massive pension fraud.
In an interview with CNN, a former nanny for Ghislaine Maxwell’s sister, Christine, recalled that in the 1990’s Ghislaine showed up at Christine’s home in Oakland Hills, California, to “lick her wounds” over a break-up with Epstein.
Ghislaine stayed in her sister’s house for just over 24 hours, according to the nanny, Sydney Proctor. After Ghislaine’s departure, Proctor recalled that Christine was livid on behalf of her sister, because “to add insult to injury Jeffrey made Ghislaine find his girlfriends.”
In an interview from 2002, one alleged Epstein victim, Annie Farmer, said she would never have stayed under Epstein’s roof had it not been for the fact Maxwell assured her mother she would act as chaperone.
In an email to CNN, Christine Maxwell said she has “no recollection of ever having had any such conversation with Sydney Proctor in relation either to my sister or Epstein.”
Even after they split, Maxwell stayed close to Epstein. Her name is mentioned frequently in a cache of documents that were unsealed last week in which it’s alleged she was a procurer for Epstein and other high-profile people.
According to multiple people in affluent Manhattan circles, including two of her girlfriends, Maxwell introduced Epstein to many of the social figures in his life. She herself socialized in exclusive circles that included people connected to politics.
Chelsea Clinton invited Maxwell to her wedding and even brought Maxwell backstage at the Clinton Global Initiative summit in 2009, according to eyewitness accounts.
Bari Lurie, a spokesperson for Chelsea Clinton, says the only reason Clinton was acquainted with Maxwell was because Maxwell was dating a friend of hers, Ted Waitt, the billionaire co-founder of Gateway Inc.
In recent days, Maxwell has not been spotted. Maxwell was not among the four women who received immunity in Epstein’s 2007 non-prosecution agreement, which has left the people in Epstein world wondering if, in the wake of Epstein’s death, she now becomes the number one target of many of the alleged victims.
Multiple attempts to contact Maxwell have been unsuccessful.
A source close to Maxwell told CNN recently that she sat with Maxwell on a flight from Miami to New York around December of last year. When asked where she was living, Maxwell did not want to be pinned down. “I live all over the place,” she replied.