MIAMI -- From Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein, big-ticket charitable donors have turned out to be thieves, abusers and scoundrels.
Now comes Jeffrey Epstein, a human ATM machine long suspected of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls at residences around the world and, as of this month, formally charged by the Justice Department with sex trafficking.
The multimillionaire hedge fund manager lavished at least $30 million on universities, scientists, politicians, cultural organizations, think tanks -- as well as his local police department, according to records of three of his charities. Records for a fourth were not available.
That $30 million figure includes at least $2 million doled out after a short stint in the Palm Beach stockade that resulted when a 53-page federal sex trafficking indictment got whittled down to a pair of minor prostitution-related charges late in the last decade.
For those organizations that hung onto the money, is there a moral obligation to give it back, or alternatively, pay it forward to organizations that would benefit, for example, young sexual assault victims such as those Epstein allegedly victimized?
"There isn't one standard for one organization to follow, and there isn't a legal obligation to return the funds," said Joan Harrington, director of social sector ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "So it really does become an ethical issue."
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Records show that Epstein, who maintained an opulent waterfront estate in Palm Beach, sought to ingratiate himself with local officials. Sometime between June 1, 2001, and May 31, 2002, while accusers say he was operating what amounted to a sexual pyramid scheme -- luring underage girls to his home then having them recruit other girls -- he gave $50,000 to the Palm Beach Police Scholarship Fund, which offers tuition help to the children of law officers. This was followed by an Oct. 16, 2003, donation to the Town of Palm Beach for $36,000.
Finally, Epstein donated $90,000 to the Palm Beach Police Department on Dec. 14, 2004 -- just a few months before the initial police investigation into his conduct began.
With Epstein under scrutiny, the $90,000 was held under the pretense of purchasing new equipment. The department reasoned that returning the money might have tipped off Epstein to the fact that he was under scrutiny. The department issued him a $90,000 refund the day he turned himself in at the local jail.
After he pleaded guilty to the much-reduced charges, Epstein leveraged his charitable money to get special treatment from a different local law enforcement agency. He persuaded the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office to allow him out on work release -- 12 hours a day, six days a week -- provided Epstein pay for a deputy to keep an eye on his whereabouts.