NEW YORK, United States — In May 1997, Alicia Arden, a model in California, was introduced to a man who identified himself as a talent scout for Victoria’s Secret. He invited her to his Santa Monica hotel room to audition for the brand’s catalogue. When she arrived, Arden said, the man grabbed her, tried to undress her and said he wanted to “manhandle” her. Arden, then 27, fled in tears.
It was the type of crisis that should not have come as a complete surprise to leaders at L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret.
In the mid-1990s, two senior executives had discovered that the same man, a close adviser to the company’s chief executive, Leslie H Wexner, was trying to pitch himself as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret models. Wexner was alerted, according to the two executives.
It is unclear what if any action Wexner took in response. But the man — Jeffrey E Epstein, a New York financier — had developed an unusually strong hold on Wexner, one of the country’s most influential corporate titans.
Within years of meeting Epstein, Wexner handed him sweeping powers over his finances, philanthropy and private life, according to interviews with people who knew the men as well as court documents and financial records.
Wexner authorised him to borrow money on his behalf, to sign his tax returns, to hire people and to make acquisitions. Over the years, Epstein obtained a New York mansion, a private plane and a luxury estate in Ohio — today valued at roughly $100 million all together — previously owned by Wexner or his companies. At the same time, he drove a wedge between Wexner and long-time associates and friends.
Virtually from the moment in the 1980s that Epstein arrived on the scene in Columbus, Ohio, where L Brands was based, Wexner’s friends and colleagues were mystified as to why a renowned businessman in the prime of his career would place such trust in an outsider with a thin résumé and scant financial experience.
I would never have guessed that a person I employed more than a decade ago could have caused such pain to so many people.
It is a mystery that has taken on new importance in the weeks since federal prosecutors in New York charged Epstein, 66, with sex trafficking involving girls as young as 14.
And it is posing a potentially grave problem for L Brands, a publicly traded company whose brands include Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. Wexner, the longest-serving chief executive in the S&P 500 and L Brands’ largest shareholder, once praised Epstein as “a most loyal friend” with “excellent judgment and unusually high standards.”
What is clear is that during the period in which he worked closely with Wexner, Epstein became extraordinarily rich.
Representatives of Wexner and L Brands refused to share even basic details of the work that Epstein performed for Wexner.
“While Epstein served as Wexner’s personal money manager for a period that ended nearly 12 years ago, we do not believe he was ever employed by nor served as an authorised representative of the company,” said Tammy Roberts Myers, a company spokeswoman.
Myers said that, at the direction of the company’s board, L Brands recently hired lawyers “to conduct a thorough review” into the relationship. She declined to say what the investigation would entail.
Through a spokesman, Wexner, 81, declined repeated requests for an interview. In a letter this month to L Brands employees, he said he was “NEVER aware of the illegal activity charged in the indictment.”
“I would never have guessed that a person I employed more than a decade ago could have caused such pain to so many people,” he wrote.
Epstein pleaded not guilty to charges that he and his employees paid dozens of underage girls to engage in sex acts. He is being held without bail as he awaits trial. His lawyer, Martin G Weinberg, declined to comment.
‘There Was Just Nothing There’
Wexner grew up in Ohio, where his parents owned a women’s apparel store, Leslie’s. Their son started The Limited in a Columbus shopping mall in 1963.
By the 1980s, Wexner was emerging as a force that would shape the American shopping mall — “The Merlin of the Mall,” as The New York Times would later describe him. His company was expanding its namesake chain, The Limited, as well as the retailer Express, while snapping up the likes of Henri Bendel and Lane Bryant.
Wexner, who would go on to buy Abercrombie & Fitch and launch Bath & Body Works, made his most important acquisition in 1982: an obscure company called Victoria’s Secret. He soon built it into a global behemoth that for decades would define many Americans’ perceptions of female sexiness.
Wexner wanted to diversify his personal investments beyond his retail chains. He was planning to build a luxury residential community in New Albany, Ohio, and also wanted to get more involved in the arts, philanthropy and Jewish causes, according to Robert Morosky, the former vice chairman of The Limited who resigned in 1987.
It was around then, in the mid-to-late-1980s, that Wexner and Epstein were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, an insurance executive named Robert Meister.
This whole thing has been a real mystery to me.
Epstein, a 30-something Coney Island native, didn’t fit the mould of financial adviser to the superwealthy. A college dropout, he had briefly taught math at the Dalton School in Manhattan and then worked at Bear Stearns, the investment bank. He told people that he was a tax expert and a fraud detective with a gift for devising sophisticated investment strategies.
After Meister’s introduction, Epstein started spending more and more time around Wexner, leaving long-time colleagues puzzled about why he was embracing this newcomer.
Morosky looked into Epstein’s background and was not impressed. “I tried to find out how did he get from a high school math teacher to a private investment adviser,” Morosky said. “There was just nothing there.”
Epstein’s formal role was to help manage Wexner’s fortune and to provide him with financial advice. The normal bread and butter of a financial adviser to a billionaire is to invest in all sorts of securities and assets, as well as hedge funds and private equity firms, pocketing a fee derived from any profits.
It isn’t clear that there was any official agreement detailing Epstein’s role or compensation. Representatives for Wexner and the company declined to answer questions about what investments Epstein made for Wexner, how any such investments performed and whether Epstein was ever audited or provided Wexner with documentation about the financial services he was providing.
“This whole thing has been a real mystery to me,” said Pete Halliday, a classmate of Wexner who helped him raise money when The Limited went public about 50 years ago. The Limited later became L Brands.
‘Manager of Fortune’
Long-time colleagues and friends of Wexner soon found themselves getting iced out of his life.
Jim Duberstein for decades attended Ohio State University football games and dinner parties with Wexner; they even invested in real estate together. Shortly after Epstein showed up, he was late for a meeting with Duberstein at Wexner’s office. When Epstein did arrive, he put his feet up on Wexner’s desk, Duberstein recalled. Wexner joined the meeting by phone and instructed Epstein to treat his old friend like family.
Soon, though, Duberstein and Epstein had a disagreement — Duberstein doesn’t recall what it was about — and Wexner cut Duberstein out of his life. He repeatedly called and sent letters to Wexner, hoping to rekindle the friendship. Wexner never replied.
“His allegiance apparently went to Epstein,” Duberstein said. “Les Wexner, until the time he quit talking to me, was probably the finest person I ever met in my life. He was the most charitable, the most generous, the most understanding. I have nothing but praise for him — until he just cut his umbilical cord.”
From the outset, Epstein’s role extended far beyond that of a traditional money manager. In the late 1980s, Wexner started building Limitless, a 316-foot yacht. Epstein managed its construction and design, said Craig Tafoya, who captained Wexner’s ships for 15 years.
In meetings with shipbuilders in London, Tafoya said, Epstein dove into details about the yacht and cast himself as a tough negotiator. “He didn’t take BS from anybody,” Tafoya said, adding that Epstein didn’t spend much time on the yacht because he “could look at a glass of water and get seasick.”
I tried to find out how did he get from a high school math teacher to a private investment adviser. There was just nothing there.
The clearest sign of Wexner’s nearly limitless comfort with Epstein came in July 1991. Wexner signed a three-page legal document, known as a power of attorney, that enabled Epstein to hire people, sign checks, buy and sell properties and borrow money — all on Wexner’s behalf. Epstein, the document stated, had the “full power and authority to do and perform every act necessary” for Wexner.
“It takes a vast amount of trust to give someone total control,” said William P LaPiana, an associate dean at New York Law School and a trust and estates expert who reviewed the document at the request of The Times. “Essentially what this means is, I can sign your name to anything.”
For the next 16 years, that document gave Epstein unmatched authority over Wexner’s financial affairs — and it corresponded to a period in which Epstein came to control or own valuable assets that previously belonged to Wexner or his companies.
Soon, Epstein’s name appeared on numerous Securities and Exchange Commission filings, listing him as a trustee for a series of ambiguously named entities like Health and Science Interests, Health and Science Interests II and International Charitable Interests, as well as trusts for Wexner’s children. Epstein had voting power over those interests, which came to own millions of dollars’ worth of Limited shares.
In Swiss banking documents related to some of Wexner’s entities, Epstein’s role was described as “manager of fortune.” The documents were included in an enormous leak of confidential records to the French newspaper Le Monde. They were shared with The Times through a collaboration organised by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Master of Ceremonies
By the time Wexner married Abigail S Koppel, a New York lawyer, in 1993, Epstein was already deeply embedded in his client’s life.
In the early 1990s, as Epstein was getting more involved in Wexner’s charitable pursuits, a dispute arose on a Wexner family foundation over the composition of the board of trustees. The foundation, with Epstein as a trustee, ended up suing Wexner’s mother, Bella, who had been temporarily replaced as a trustee while she was ill. Ms Wexner died in 2001.
Epstein wasn’t shy about injecting himself into clients’ personal lives. “If my client needs protecting — sometimes even from his own family — then it’s often better that people hate me, not the client,” he told Vanity Fair in 2003. Epstein does not appear to have had as long a list of clients as he boasted; Wexner was by far his largest.
Epstein became ubiquitous in Ohio. His black book of contacts filled up with phone numbers with Columbus’s 614 area code. That included dozens of numbers for Wexner, his personal staff and L Brands executives — even a couple of local doctors. Epstein, who would fly in and out of Columbus on his private plane, became a fixture at Wexner’s parties and an annual fund-raiser for the Wexner Arts Centre, which included a luncheon at the billionaire’s home.
When Wexner celebrated his 59th birthday with a dinner party at his mansion, Epstein acted like a master of ceremonies, giving toasts and introducing guests, according to a person who attended.
As Epstein managed Wexner’s fortune, parts of that fortune ended up in Epstein’s hands.
Why would someone that powerful and successful befriend someone like Jeffrey Epstein? I don’t get it.
Epstein became deeply involved in Wexner’s upscale real-estate development in New Albany, about 15 miles outside Columbus. He set up shop in the same downtown Columbus skyscraper as Jack Kessler, the co-founder of the New Albany Company and one of Wexner’s close friends. Kessler declined to comment.
Inside the New Albany development, a 23-room, 10,600-square-foot mansion with a pool and bathhouse was being built for Kessler and his wife, property records show. But Wexner legally controlled the property, and in 1992 Epstein acquired it for $3.5 million.
In 1998, another entity linked to Wexner bought the property back from Epstein for $8 million, more than doubling his investment. The assessed value of the home has not changed over the past two decades, according to the Franklin County Treasurer, which today lists the value as $7.8 million.
Around the same time, Epstein, through a separate company, spent $7.95 million to buy Little St James Island in the United States Virgin Islands, which would eventually become one of his primary residences.
Epstein in 1998 also took sole possession of Wexner’s stone mansion on East 71st Street in New York. A person with knowledge of Wexner’s finances said that Epstein paid $20 million, although there are no publicly filed documents recording the transaction.
About two years later, a business controlled by Epstein obtained a Boeing 727 previously owned by The Limited. There do not appear to be public records of the transaction, but the person with knowledge of Wexner’s finances said Epstein paid $10 million.
Epstein assumed leadership positions in Wexner’s foundations, according to tax records. Two of those foundations contributed a total of about $21 million in stock and cash to a charity that Epstein had set up, called C.O.U.Q.
Epstein’s charity contributed money to a variety of organisations, including the Palm Beach, Florida, police department, a Florida ballet group and the Clinton Foundation.
Through his proximity to Wexner, Epstein gained unique access to young women.
In the summer of 1996, Maria Farmer was working on an art project for Epstein in Wexner’s Ohio mansion. While she was there, Epstein sexually assaulted her, according to an affidavit Farmer filed earlier this year in federal court in Manhattan. She said that she fled the room and called the police, but that Wexner’s security staff refused to let her leave for 12 hours.
That was around the time that executives at L Brands learned that Epstein was trying to involve himself in the recruitment of lingerie models for the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, a coveted assignment for young models and aspiring actresses. That was troubling: Victoria’s Secret sourced models from talent agencies, not individuals, according to the two former executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they signed nondisclosure agreements after leaving the company.
When Wexner was informed about what Epstein was doing, he promised to take care of the issue, the two executives said.
His weapons were his hands.
Less than a year after the alleged assault of Farmer, Arden visited Epstein in his Santa Monica hotel room, expecting to discuss appearing in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. “His weapons were his hands,” Arden said.
She said she went to the police the day after Epstein attacked her, worried that he could be using his connection to Victoria’s Secret to hurt other women. A week later, when she could not stop thinking about what had happened, she returned to the police station to put her report on the record.
That police report, reviewed by The Times, is one of the earliest known police records of an allegation of sexual misconduct against Epstein.
Nearly a decade later, in early 2006, Florida authorities charged Epstein with multiple counts of molestation and unlawful sexual activity with a minor.
It wasn’t until 18 months later that Wexner cut ties with Epstein.
In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of solicitation of prostitution from a minor and was required to register as a sex offender. With the case in the headlines at the time, it finally dawned on Arden that Epstein had never worked for Victoria’s Secret.
Since Epstein’s arrest this month, Arden said she has wondered whether his connections to Wexner allowed him to get away with the crimes he is now charged with.
“Why would someone that powerful and successful befriend someone like Jeffrey Epstein?” Arden said. “I don’t get it.”
By Steve Eder, Emily Steel, Matthew Goldstein, Sapna Maheshwari; additional reporting by Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Mike McIntire; research by Kitty Bennett, Alain Delaqueriere, Susan Beachy.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.