Jeffrey Epstein: the sordid downfall of a plutocrat

Jeffrey Epstein © Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Jeffrey Epstein was a financier who rubbed shoulders with the rich and powerful. Allegations of sexual abuse have brought him down. But just how did he make his money? 

When US federal prosecutors recently unsealed their indictment against Jeffrey Epstein – a New York financier with a jet-setting lifestyle and a host of famous friends in business and politics – it revealed “sordid details” of sex trafficking allegations dating back to 2002-2005, says The New York Times. Briefly put, Epstein and employees “brought dozens of vulnerable girls, some as young as 14, to his mansions in Manhattan and Florida” where he molested them for cash – and bribed them to recruit others to ensure “a steady supply”. Prosecutors said that “a vast trove of lewd photos” hidden in a safe showed that Epstein – who had dodged federal charges in 2008 after reaching a notably lenient plea deal with South Florida prosecutors – was “unrepentant”. His lawyers counter that the new case is just “ancient stuff”. But, a decade on, it’s striking how many questions still hang over Epstein. How much is he actually worth? Where did he get his money? And who exactly are his “billionaire clients”?

Who is Jeffrey Epstein?

“There’s a lot to unravel,” says former Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker in The Times. A “central puzzle” is how a man with Epstein’s history came to continue “enjoying what might be termed the normal life of an American plutocrat”, rubbing shoulders with everyone from presidents (he counted both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump as friends) to princes. Plenty of lurid explanations have been advanced, including speculation that Epstein, 66, had built “a vast network” of powerful people who shared his alleged sexual predilections.

So who is Jeffrey Epstein? He had a humble start, says the FT. “A Coney Island native and college dropout,” his father worked for the Brooklyn parks department. Epstein had a restless intelligence and charm and “gained access to a different world” when he began teaching maths at Manhattan’s elite Dalton School in the 1970s. One parent was Alan “Ace” Greenberg, the Bear Stearns chairman and Wall Street legend, who offered him a job. Epstein left after five years to set up his own money management firm, vowing only to serve billionaires.

A murky past

There’s no doubt that Epstein made money – even if it wasn’t as much as he liked to imply. But the question of where it came from “has confounded journalists for decades”. He put it about that he was a property developer, but his only known client was Les Wexner, the retail mogul behind Victoria’s Secret – and Wexner insists he hasn’t dealt with him for years. Wall Street traders say Epstein “left no tracks in the financial markets” (although he once worked with Steven Hoffenberg, later convicted of running a Ponzi scheme). His company, Financial Trust Co, is incorporated in the notoriously opaque US Virgin Islands.

“It’s very murky,” Thomas Volscho – a US sociology professor who is writing a book about Epstein – told New York magazine. Volscho claims to have found “little bits of evidence” that “Epstein is a fraudster”: for a start, he embellished his educational background. He speculates that Epstein may have been embezzling funds from the charities he supported, and was possibly involved in money laundering. There’s also evidence of “blackmail”, which would be in keeping with “the way Epstein operates”.

Whatever the truth, the days of Epstein’s pomp are almost certainly over, says the FT. He faces 45 years in prison if convicted. The whispers percolating through the Hamptons this August concern who he might take with him.