Since noted sexual predator, convicted sex offender, and (alleged) pedophile Jeffrey Epstein was arrested last weekend, a flurry of articles have come out that describe him as a “billionaire,” a descriptor that we’ve also used here at Jezebel. The financier part is true, but is he in fact a billionaire? The answer seems to be no—and an examination of how he actually made his money raises some interesting questions.
Several recent articles have raised questions about Epstein’s net worth. “While he’s frequently been called a billionaire, his net worth is hard to ascertain,” Bloomberg wrote. “There’s scant proof as to his financial bona fides,” New York magazine noted, echoing Forbes, which wrote that the magazine “has never included Epstein, 66, in its rankings of the World’s Billionaires, since there is scant proof he holds a ten-figure fortune.”
On Wednesday, the New York Times published the most detailed examination of Epstein’s wealth, concluding that “much of [his wealth] appears to be an illusion, and there is little evidence that Mr. Epstein is a billionaire.”
Epstein does own a money management firm based in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he owns an actual 78-acre island, complete with a very curious temple with a lock that seems designed to keep people inside. But, as the Times and other outlets have pointed out, his firm “has released no audited financial statements or performance reports to back up his claims of investment prowess,” and he has never released a client list. As Bloomberg noted, “few on Wall Street have dealt with him as a financier or money manager.” According to the Times, in 2002, Epstein reported having 20 employees, “far fewer than reported figures around that time,” and that his firm had $88 million in capital from its shareholders. During the financial crisis of 2008, he “lost large sums of money,” losing at least tens of millions from his investments at Bear Stearns alone, according to the Times.
The most concrete manifestations of his wealth are the properties he owns—in addition to the mansion on East 71st Street where he was alleged to have sexually violated young girls and his private Caribbean island, Epstein also owns a large ranch in New Mexico; a home in Palm Beach, Florida; and an apartment in Paris.
But what was the source of all of his money and his investments and his properties?
As the Times wrote, much of Epstein’s supposed “wealth” came from two men:
Mr. Epstein’s wealth may have depended less on his math acumen than his connections to two men — Steven J. Hoffenberg, a onetime owner of The New York Post and a notorious fraudster later convicted of running a $460 million Ponzi scheme, and Leslie H. Wexner, the billionaire founder of retail chains including The Limited and the chief executive of the company that owns Victoria’s Secret.
Mr. Hoffenberg was Mr. Epstein’s partner in two ill-fated takeover bids in the 1980s, including one of Pan American World Airways, and would later claim that Mr. Epstein had been part of the scheme that landed him in jail — although Mr. Epstein was never charged.
It’s Wexner’s relationship with Epstein that has drawn the most attention. Their relationship, which was both personal and financial, was a curious one, one that in the words of the Times, “baffled longtime associates of the wealthy retail magnate,” who at the time was worth $1.8 billion. Journalist Vicky Ward, who profiled Epstein for Vanity Fair in 2003, shared in a later piece published in 2015 that Epstein’s friends believed Wexner was the “real source of Epstein’s wealth.” “Wexner (who called him ‘my friend Jeffrey’) never commented on this,” she added, “though he did send me an email praising Epstein’s ‘ability to see patterns in politics and financial markets.’”
Here’s Forbes on Epstein’s relationship with Wexner in 2010:
One known client, Leslie Wexner, billionaire founder of The Limited clothing chain, was widely believed to be his benefactor for years and the major source of his wealth: at one time, Epstein was listed as a trustee of The Wexner Foundation, and Wexner reportedly bought Epstein a $13 million New York apartment.
But once Epstein was charged with engaging in sexual activity with minors, Wexner dropped his old friend, replacing him with JPMorgan’s Dennis Hersch.
Wexner and Epstein met in the late 1980s, introduced by a friend of Wexner’s who met Epstein on a flight from New York City to Palm Beach, Florida. Close associates of Wexner, like Robert Morosky, the vice chairman of The Limited, were confused by their relationship. “Everyone was mystified as to what his appeal was,” Morosky told the Times. “I checked around and found out he was a private high school math teacher, and that was all I could find out. There was just nothing there.”
And Epstein’s mansion on East 71st Street? It was originally Wexner’s—he had bought the mansion for $13.2 million in 1989, but he never lived in it. Instead, it became Epstein’s. It’s unclear whether Epstein paid Wexner for the townhouse, now worth anywhere from $56 to $77 million. According to Town and Country, “For reasons that have never been explained, Wexner appears to have made a gift of the house to Epstein, transferring title for the cost of $0 around 1996.” The Times, however, reports that in 1998, “Epstein took sole possession of the 71st Street mansion,” and that Wexner “conveyed his interest in the corporation that owned it to one controlled by Mr. Epstein for $20 million, according to a person familiar with the transaction.” (According to a separate Times article, “the transaction has never appeared in New York City records online.”)
If you’re raising some eyebrows over what looks like Wexner’s outsized generosity to Epstein, you’re not the only one. In light of the murkiness surrounding how exactly Epstein made his money, some theories have been floated for years, from his possibly running a Ponzi scheme to blackmail to money laundering.
Is there any reason to believe that Epstein was blackmailing people? There are some hints that point to its being a possibility. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim pointed out that in the memo released by the Southern District of New York, it was noted that a CD in Epstein’s safe was labeled “Young [Name] + [Name].” “That looks an awful lot like they found the blackmail tapes,” Grim wrote.
Those tapes were detailed by one of Epstein’s alleged victims Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who says she was 16 when Epstein’s ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell allegedly recruited and groomed her. In a 2015 court filing, she wrote that “based on my knowledge of Epstein and his organization, as well as discussions with the FBI, it is my belief that federal prosecutors likely possess videotapes and photographic images of me as an underage girl having sex with Epstein and some of his powerful friends.” As reported by New York magazine, Giuffre also “claimed that Epstein ‘debriefed her’ after she was forced into sexual encounters so that he could possess ‘intimate and potentially embarrassing information’ to blackmail friends into parking their money with him.”
In reporting her 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Epstein, Ward wrote that she “discovered many other concrete, irrefutable examples of strange business practices by Epstein,” though she doesn’t elaborate on what those were. She added: “While I still couldn’t tell you exactly what he did do to subsidize his lifestyle, my piece would certainly show that he was definitely not what he claimed to be.”