What the Jeffrey Epstein Scandal Means to Columbus and Retail Magnate Les Wexner
The L Brands founder and philanthropist has long been lauded for his entrepreneurial vision and his impact on the city. Will his involvement with a convicted sex offender tarnish that legacy?
If you’re looking for the quintessential Les Wexner experience, the Jefferson Series might be it. Since 2014, it’s featured renowned architects, best-selling authors, Oscar-nominated actresses, decorated military leaders, a former U.N. ambassador and other prominent figures in media and politics. The lecture series is a passion project for Wexner, who seems to love nothing more than reveling in its heady mix of big ideas, public service, deep thinking and philanthropy.
On Oct. 1, 2019, the program launched its seventh season with a typically star-studded affair. Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, a Wexner favorite making his fourth Jefferson Series appearance, moderated a panel discussion on China with two former U.S. secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright. Wexner often offers introductory remarks for these lectures, and this one was no different. The 82-year-old L Brands founder refused to let the explosive Jeffrey Epstein scandal—a controversy unlike any other Wexner has faced—keep him from a public appearance at one of his favorite Central Ohio events.
Standing before the sold-out crowd of nearly 900 at the McCoy Center for the Arts, Wexner thanked everyone for supporting the series and introduced the speakers. After he returned to his seat, Zakaria acknowledged Wexner and his wife, Abigail. “I first want to thank Les Wexner and everybody involved in putting this together,” he said. “As many of you know, this whole idea and this civic engagement has been the brainchild of Les and Abigail, and I think it is just so important to have successful people in America give back to the community in this way.” The crowd responded with hearty applause.
The warm reaction revealed a lot about Columbus and its relationship with its most powerful citizen. Amid one of the darkest years of Wexner’s public life, his hometown hasn’t turned on him. After decades of good works, philanthropy and civic leadership, even a sordid saga of lies, extravagance, sexual assault and impunity hasn’t broken the cocoon of goodwill that surrounds him.
But the saga is not done.
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This is the Columbus version of Les Wexner: the inspirational builder of one of the city’s most important corporations, the self-made billionaire who gives hundreds of millions of dollars away to improve his hometown, the unselfish civic statesman who’s a role model to other leaders, the visionary who built his own suburban Shangri-La in the rural flatlands east of Columbus. Now, this is the Epstein scandal version of Wexner: the careless rich guy who gave complete control of his fortune to a money manager with a sketchy history, the benefactor whose imprimatur gave an undeserving protégé status and power, the blinkered mentor who described his now-disgraced pal in a 2003 Vanity Fair article as “very smart,” a “most loyal friend” and someone with “excellent judgment and unusually high standards.”
In Columbus, it’s hard to reconcile these two conflicting portraits. How can the same man be so savvy and so naive, so brilliant and so blind? How could Wexner—who’s avoided scandal all his life and is married to a tireless advocate for children and abused women—associate himself with someone who turned out to be of such questionable character, someone who was arrested in early July 2019 on sex-trafficking charges? Columbus has been forced to grapple with these questions since then, when Wexner emerged as a central figure in the saga of Epstein, who hanged himself in a New York City jail cell while facing charges he abused dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14. The topic has dominated conversations, filled social media feeds, spawned wild speculation. It’s been an oh-my-God moment.
As the Epstein scandal blotted out the sun during the summer, Columbus leaders were disturbed. “The concern was that we didn’t want it to be a concern,” says Lisa Courtice, the CEO of United Way of Central Ohio. “He’s revered and a hero to Columbus, so we are sad that he has to go through this and sad for his family. I think that’s what I heard the most. He’s so important to our history and our future. We just don’t want it to impact our city.”
Indeed, a big public reckoning is unlikely. Columbus Monthly contacted more than two dozen local leaders in politics, business, the nonprofit sector and the civic realm, and almost all declined to talk about Wexner on the record or didn’t respond to messages. (Wexner also declined to be interviewed for this story.) And those who did talk were almost uniformly supportive of Wexner.
You have to go a long way down the city’s power structure to find someone willing to criticize Wexner’s connections to Epstein on the record. “Columbus as a whole is not OK with this,” says Liliana Rivera Baiman, an underdog candidate for Columbus City Council whose status as a sexual assault survivor inspired her in part to speak out. She is concerned that the most powerful person in the city was associated with a sexual predator, wants to know more about their financial and personal relationship and wants to hold Wexner accountable if wrongdoing is discovered. Mostly, she wants to have a loud, public conversation.
To be sure, she’s not Wexner’s only public critic. There are plenty of dark takes on Wexner, especially outside of Columbus and in the cynical, conspiracy-fueled world of social media. But the Columbus establishment is a different story. For instance, all of Rivera Baiman’s incumbent opponents—Councilmembers Elizabeth Brown, Emmanuel Remy, Shayla Favor and Rob Dorans—declined to comment for this article. “I think people are afraid of bringing it up,” Rivera Baiman says.
Meanwhile, Wexner’s backers praise him for his integrity and accept his explanations: that he knew nothing about Epstein’s sex crimes, that he’s embarrassed and ashamed by his association with the disgraced financier, that he “regrets having ever crossed his path.” His early trust in Epstein might baffle some of these supporters, but they also sympathize with his plight. They say he’s an optimist, trusting by nature, and that can make him an easy mark for a master swindler like Epstein. Wexner deserves our support, they say, not our scorn.
“Les Wexner is so well-respected,” says Curt Steiner, the veteran political operative and former Ohio State senior vice president of communications. “Something like this will raise eyebrows, but it’s not going to change the level of respect people have for him. Les Wexner is going to be given the benefit of the doubt.”
“Those of us who know him best know of his unwavering ethics, his moral compass, his unselfish commitment to Columbus,” says Alex Fischer, the CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the city’s most powerful civic organization, which is chaired by Wexner. “He’s been one of the people in my life who’s been the standard of community engagement, and I don’t think anything in the summer’s events have changed that.”
A divorce from Wexner is improbable, almost unimaginable. How could the city cut ties with someone who is essentially the father of modern Columbus, someone whose last name is plastered on buildings and institutions all over town, from COSI to Ohio State to Nationwide Children’s Hospital?
“Les and Abigail both have earned an extraordinary reservoir of goodwill that is going to outweigh the negative fallout that he’s had to endure so far,” says Mike Curtin, the former state representative and ex-associate publisher of The Columbus Dispatch. Speaking in early September, Curtin says that he hasn’t seen any revelations so far pointing to Wexner’s culpability in Epstein’s misdeeds. “I believe we’ve seen the worst of it,” Curtin says. “I hope we’ve seen the worst of it.”
Yet the Epstein saga plays on. As of late 2019, books are in the works, as is a Netflix docuseries. A movie seems inevitable, and the courts aren’t through with Epstein despite his death. Federal prosecutors in New York are continuing to investigate, focusing on Epstein’s former associates, and several Epstein victims are suing his estate, valued at more than $500 million. The media continues to focus on Wexner, including a major Washington Post story published in early October 2019 that tied him and Abigail more directly to a previously alleged 1996 Epstein sexual assault in New Albany. And Wexner could end up a major figure in an Epstein-related clash of legal titans that is playing out in both the courts and the media—a dispute between famed attorneys David Boies and Alan Dershowitz.
Wexner’s protective Columbus cocoon might need some reinforcements.
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Since Epstein’s arrest in early July 2019, Wexner has been the focus of a media feeding frenzy. The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg and more have descended on Columbus, with reporters inundating Wexner’s friends, former work associates and acquaintances with phone calls. The attention—the most brutal coverage of Wexner’s life, made worse by the cultural backlash that was already roiling Victoria’s Secret, L Brands’ signature enterprise—peaked on July 25, 2019, when the Times and the Journal simultaneously published deep dives on Wexner and Epstein. One Wexner friend declined to speak on the record to Columbus Monthly, fearing that public comments might lead to even more calls from reporters. “I don’t have time for that,” the friend says.
Thanks to all that reporting, a striking portrait of Epstein has emerged: Wexner’s man in the shadows, his “international moneyman of mystery,” as New York Magazine dubbed him. For his only publicly known client, Epstein was more than just a financial adviser. He oversaw the construction of Wexner’s 316-foot superyacht, Limitless. He joined the board of the Wexner Foundation, the tycoon’s charitable arm, replacing Wexner’s mother, Bella, who died in 2001. With the help of Wexner, Epstein became a jet-setter in his own right. He bought a corporate plane from the Limited, then the name of L Brands, as well as a seven-floor home in New York, the largest private residence in Manhattan, from Wexner. Epstein even purchased a 10,000-square-foot home (originally intended for Wexner’s friend, New Albany Co. chairman Jack Kessler) for $3.5 million on the grounds that surround Wexner’s own mansion in New Albany.
Following months of media scrutiny, here’s a field guide to what Columbus Monthly and other outlets have learned about Epstein, Wexner and their professional and personal relationship, as well as what questions remain unanswered.
The Origins: Wexner appears to have met Epstein in the mid-1980s. A source says Robert Meister, a former Aon insurance executive and a friend of Wexner, introduced Wexner to Epstein, who also received endorsements from Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne and his predecessor, Alan “Ace” Greenberg. “Mr. Epstein represented that he had various well-known and respected individuals both as his financial clients and in his inner circle,” Wexner wrote in an Aug. 8 statement posted on the website of the Wexner Foundation. “Based on positive reports from several friends, and on my initial dealings with him, I believed I could trust him.”
Still, plenty of people questioned Wexner’s judgment from the start. Epstein, who owned his own wealth management firm after working as a Bear Stearns trader, was a college dropout and a former math teacher at a Manhattan private school with a skimpy resume despite his high-profile references. “It’s a weird relationship,” an anonymous Wall Streeter told New York Magazine in 2002. “It’s just not normal for someone of such enormous wealth to all of a sudden give his money to some guy most people have never heard of.”
Calling Bob Morosky: Columbus hasn’t heard a lot from Wexner’s former top lieutenant of late, but he was a frequent interview during the aftermath of Epstein’s arrest. Morosky didn’t return Columbus Monthly’s calls, but he did speak to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others, delivering some of the most biting comments about Epstein and Wexner. “I tried to find out how did he get from a high school math teacher to a private investment adviser,” the former chief financial officer and vice chairman told The Times. “There was nothing there.”
Epstein’s connections apparently intrigued Wexner. Morosky said his boss told him that Epstein could “introduce him to important people.” Morosky spent 15 years with the Limited before resigning in 1987. “Les is an insecure guy with a big ego. … He had a lot of money but craved respect,” Morosky told The Wall Street Journal. “They played off each other’s needs.”
Power of Attorney: Many observers have zeroed in on Wexner’s decision to grant Epstein power of attorney in 1991, allowing him to borrow money, write checks, buy real estate and more on his behalf. A power-of-attorney agreement is “common in that context,” Wexner wrote in his Aug. 8 statement, pointing out that it gave him more time to focus on his business and philanthropic efforts. Indeed, another wealthy Central Ohio resident agrees, saying such arrangements are common for high-net-worth individuals with complicated finances who need help managing their assets. “I’ve done that before,” the Central Ohio resident says, comparing it to a professional athlete who hires a personal manager to allow him to focus on his sport.
Close to Home: One of the earliest reports of a sexual assault committed by Epstein occurred in 1996 in his New Albany home, which he sold for $8 million in 1998. In a court affidavit and an interview with The New York Times, Maria Farmer, an artist who worked for Epstein, says he and his friend Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of the late British press baron Robert Maxwell, assaulted her in a bedroom in the home, twisting her nipples to the point of bruising. Fearing she was going to be raped, Farmer fled the room, The Times reported. Epstein had invited Farmer to spend the summer in the home while she worked on two large-scale paintings commissioned for the movie “As Good as It Gets” starring Jack Nicholson.
Farmer told The Washington Post she holds Wexner “responsible for what happened to me.” She pointed to Wexner’s close ties to Epstein, as well as the responsibility of his security team to monitor the property, located on the grounds of the Wexner estate about a half-mile away from his mansion. Farmer also said Wexner’s security officers held her against her will for about 12 hours following the assault until her father arrived from Kentucky to pick her up.
A Wexner spokesman told the Post the Wexners were unaware of the alleged attack: “Before the recent news coverage of Ms. Farmer, Mr. and Mrs. Wexner had no knowledge of her, never met her, never spoke with her and never spoke with Mr. Epstein or anyone else about her.”
Epstein and Victoria’s Secret: Then there’s Alicia Arden, a California model who says Epstein assaulted her in a Santa Monica hotel room. Posing as a talent scout for Victoria’s Secret, Epstein invited Arden to his hotel for an audition. When she arrived, he grabbed her and tried to undress her, saying he wanted to “manhandle” her, Arden said in an interview with The New York Times. What’s more, The Times reported Wexner was told in the mid-1990s that Epstein was attempting to sell himself as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret models, according to two executives at the time.
The L Brands board has hired a law firm to investigate Epstein’s role with the company, though a spokeswoman has said she believes he was never employed by the company or served as an authorized representative.
Mysterious Money: In January 2008, Epstein transferred $47 million from his company and his own foundation to one created about a month earlier by Abigail Wexner. The transfer occurred a few months after the Wexners severed ties with Epstein following his indictment on sex charges in Florida in September 2007. This payment raised plenty of eyebrows when The Columbus Dispatch reported it in July. Why would Abigail accept money from an accused pedophile she and her husband just fired?
The answer came in August, when Les revealed that in the fall of 2007, he discovered that Epstein had taken “vast sums of money from me and my family.” The $47 million donation was actually a partial repayment for the misappropriated funds, Wexner said in his Aug. 8 statement. “All of that money—every dollar—was originally Wexner family money,” Wexner wrote. “I am embarrassed that, like so many others, I was deceived by Mr. Epstein. I know now that my trust in him was grossly misplaced.”
Ohio State has also been drawn into this controversy. Following Epstein’s July 2019 arrest, the university discovered two gifts connected to the disgraced financier: $1,000 to the Wexner Center for the Arts Membership Fund in 1990 and $2.5 million in May 2007 to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. The athletic center gift was done in conjunction with a matching contribution from the Leslie H. Wexner Charitable Fund. The money fulfilled a pledge that led to the naming of the Les Wexner Football Complex, a surprise 70th birthday gift to Les from Abigail in 2007.
In early October 2019, Ohio State was still reviewing its records for any other gifts from Epstein. The review is expected to finish soon. The university hasn’t decided what it will do with the tarnished money, but it could donate equivalent funds to charity. “Les and Abigail Wexner have been great community leaders and supporters of Ohio State for many years,” Ohio State president Michael Drake said in a statement provided to Columbus Monthly. “They’ve done so much to uplift both the university and the city of Columbus, and we sincerely appreciate their ongoing service and support. I continue to rely on Les and Abigail as valued partners and friends.”
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What’s the next chapter for Wexner in the Epstein saga? Perhaps a court date with one of the country’s most famous (and outspoken) attorneys. Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor, was one of the first celebrities to be accused of participating in Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring. Now, the onetime member of O.J. Simpson’s legal dream team is waging a scorched-earth campaign in the courts and in the media to clear his name—and Wexner may be the key to his defense.
It’s a convoluted story, but the gist of Dershowitz’s argument is that he wasn’t the real target of his accuser, Virginia Roberts Giuffre. He was merely a “stalking horse,” and Giuffre and her attorney—David Boies, a fellow legal luminary who represented Al Gore during the 2000 Florida recount—were really after Wexner and his riches. For about four years, Dershowitz has made this extortion claim in court filings and in media interviews. But interest has increased since Giuffre filed a defamation lawsuit against Dershowitz in April 2019, and the FBI arrested Epstein three months later.
Dershowitz tells Columbus Monthly his legal team intends to feature Wexner if a trial moves forward, which could occur in about a year. “He is one of the most critical witnesses for my trial,” Dershowitz says. Other witnesses could include Abigail and John Zeiger, the Wexner family’s Columbus attorney. At issue is a series of phone calls and one face-to-face meeting that occurred in 2015 between Giuffre’s lawyers and Zeiger. Dershowitz says he spoke to Abigail and Zeiger, and both used the word “shakedown” to describe Boies’ tactics prior to the face-to-face meeting that occurred at the attorney’s New York law offices in July 2015.
The court proceedings could prove unpleasant for Wexner. Dershowitz and his legal team want to know what was discussed during the phone calls and the meeting, in hopes they will discover something that will undermine the claims of Giuffre, potentially dragging Wexner through the mud. “I hate to be doing this,” says Dershowitz, who attended Wexner’s 59th birthday party in 1996 at the invitation of Epstein and taught Wexner’s son Harry at Harvard. “I like Leslie Wexner. He’s done an enormous amount of good to the world, to the Jewish community, for Israel, for Harvard. But the truth has to come out.”
Boies didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a court affidavit, he denied the extortion claim, adding that no settlement demand was made or even discussed with Wexner or his attorney. A source close to Wexner also says there was no extortion.
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As the Epstein story engulfed Wexner, some Columbus leaders worried the city might overreact. What if protests occur? What if names are removed from buildings? What if the city turns its back on its most influential family? If that were to happen, the thinking goes, then the Wexners might give up on the city. “That would be the most horrible thing that would ever happen to Columbus,” says a business leader.
That scenario hasn’t occurred. And civic leaders say Wexner remains just as engaged as ever. In early September 2019, he joined 75 community leaders—60 CEOs, plus public officials such as Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther and Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown—for the Columbus Partnership’s annual two-day retreat in Boston. Hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School, the retreat featured big-picture planning, small-group discussions and high-profile guest speakers, including biographer Walter Isaacson and The New York Times’ Beijing bureau chief Jane Perlez.
The conversations were spirited, enthusiastic and challenging—and four attendees say Wexner was in the middle of it, as always: listening intently, asking questions, learning alongside his fellow CEOs. Wexner didn’t speak about Epstein, nor did anyone ask him to. “His work in the community, his work in his company, the work of his family—those are his loves,” says a Partnership member, adding with a laugh, “He doesn’t golf.”
As the retreat closed, Wexner gave his traditional benediction: He thanked all for their commitment and participation, stressing that Columbus owes the success of the past decade to leaders “committed to being in the room.”
Will Wexner remain in the room? Or, more specifically, at the head of the table? Those four attendees are in agreement: He’s not going anywhere—despite his advancing age, despite the troubles at Victoria’s Secret, despite Epstein.
“It’s the same Les,” one says.
This story is from the November 2019 issue of Columbus Monthly.