Jim Kenyon: Controversial alumnus, donor puts a black mark on Dartmouth College

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/13/2020 10:08:11 PM
Modified: 10/14/2020 9:33:29 AM

When I saw a construction crew toiling away this summer on the facade of the Black Family Visual Arts Center in Hanover, my spirits soared.

Could Dartmouth actually be removing the Black name from one of its leading downtown buildings?

No such luck.

On Tuesday, the Black name remained front and center above the building’s Lebanon Street entrance. (Wishful thinking got the better of me. It turned out the college had been replacing some windows.)

I’ve always questioned why Dartmouth would choose to honor billionaire financier Leon Black by awarding him prime billing on a state-of-the-art building that, as the college boasted at its opening in September 2012, “anchors Dartmouth’s Arts District.”

But that’s what money buys at an Ivy League institution. (Or just about any college for that matter.) Black, a 1973 Dartmouth graduate and former chairman of the college’s board of trustees, and his wife, Debra, doled out $48 million for the project.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the 69-year-old Black epitomizes Wall Street greed. He’s amassed a personal fortune of an estimated $9 billion, largely by buying and investing in distressed companies before bleeding them dry, often at the expense of rank-and-file workers.

But that’s the private equity game.

With the news concerning Black that’s come out this week, however, I imagine Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon and the college’s trustees won’t be playing up their close ties to one of their wealthiest alums anytime soon.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that Black and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had a “far deeper relationship than previously known.”

In the years after Epstein was convicted for soliciting prostitution from a teenage girl in 2008, Black wired Epstein at least $50 million, according to documents reviewed by the Times and the paper’s interviews with four people with knowledge of the transactions. The money transfers included $10 million from a Black-controlled company to a foundation started by Epstein. (In 1997, Black had made Epstein one of the original trustees of his family foundation, the Times reported.)

Epstein, who served 13 months behind bars following his 2008 conviction, was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges last summer. A month later, Epstein, 66, was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell.

Black, described by the Times as “one of Wall Street’s most powerful executives,” has been under scrutiny for his ties with Epstein for a while.

Black, the CEO of Apollo Global Management, the investment company he co-founded in 1990, sent a letter last July to investors in an attempt to ease their concerns. Black told investors that he’d had a “limited relationship” with Epstein and had consulted him from “time to time” on personal financial matters, the Times reported.

After the Times’ story, which mentioned that the two men “often socialized and dined together,” broke on Monday, Black sent another letter to investors. He acknowledged paying Epstein “millions of dollars annually for his work,” from 2012 to 2017.

“With the benefit of hindsight — and knowing everything that has come to light about Mr. Epstein’s despicable conduct more than fifteen years ago — I deeply regret having had any involvement with him.” Black wrote.

He failed to mention, however, that Epstein was already a convicted sex offender when the two were doing business as recently as three years ago.

In his letter, Black acknowledged making a visit with his family to Epstein’s private island in the Caribbean for a picnic lunch while on a family holiday in 2012.

“From time to time, I also met with Mr. Epstein at his townhouse in New York City, because that is where he conducted business,” Black wrote.

Black also indicated that he would cooperate with officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands, who allege Epstein used his private island as an unlawful tax break and to engage in sex trafficking. The attorney general of the Virgin Islands has filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit against Epstein’s $600 million estate.

Black ended his business relationship with Epstein as a result of a “fee dispute” in 2018 and “ceased communications with him after that,” Stephanie Pillersdorf, a spokeswoman for Black, told me via email on Tuesday.

“As has been noted in press reports, there has never been an allegation by anyone, including the New York Times, that Mr. Black engaged in any wrongdoing or inappropriate conduct,” Pillersdorf wrote. “Mr. Black was completely unaware of — and continues to be appalled by — the reprehensible conduct that surfaced at the end of 2018 and which led to the federal criminal charges brought against Mr. Epstein.”

She added that Black has been a “loyal Dartmouth alumnus since 1973 and is proud of his continued support of the College and the Visual Arts Center.”

Black, a philosophy and history major at Dartmouth, has also endowed the Leon Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies. (In 2012, Black told Forbes magazine that his father loved Shakespeare and took his family every year to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.) In a tribute to his father, he’s endowed the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies as well.

On Tuesday, three Dartmouth alums — Diana Whitney, Ruth Cserr and Veronica Wessels, founding members of the advocacy group Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence — weighed in.

“The revelation that Leon Black, a prominent Dartmouth graduate, bankrolled pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, is yet another indication that the good old boy network is alive and well at Dartmouth,” the women wrote in a statement to the Valley News. “That Black’s name is honored on the visual arts center at Dartmouth is deeply troubling.”

So where does this leave Dartmouth when a prominent alum with deep pockets — Black is also chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York — is making national news for all the wrong reasons?

There has been no discussion about removing Black’s name from the visual arts center, college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said when I asked on Tuesday.

I didn’t expect to hear otherwise. But I suspect the college is just as engaged in wishful thinking as I was earlier, if it thinks the issue of Black’s relationship with Epstein won’t continue to come up.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.


Veronica Wessels is among the founding members of the adv ocacy group Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence. Her last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this column.

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