As the clouds of suspicion around Leslie Wexner have darkened over the past year, the foundation he created over 30 years ago to cultivate leadership in the Jewish world and Israel appears to be divorcing itself from the billionaire businessman’s name and persona.
At the same time, though, there has been no evidence of structural change to provide greater transparency or reduce the billionaire philanthropist’s ability to control the Wexner Foundation.
For years, Wexner served as an inspirational example of someone who had single-handedly “changed the world.” In June 2019, the Wexner Foundation website proudly displayed one of several videos made over the years, paying tribute to Wexner and urging participants in its five leadership programs to “make an impact. Change the world. In the words of Leslie H. Wexner, leaders lead, and this is a compilation of Mr. Wexner leading. His words are inspiring and his actions are motivating. Mr. Wexner has changed the world, and provides the inspiration for you to do the same.”
For decades, Wexner’s image and philosophy were central on the website: photographs, extensive biographical information and a rotating selection of quotes from Wexner, along with videos extolling his virtues. An examination of archived web pages shows that from 2002 until January 2020, images of Wexner were always displayed on the home page, which even included a section titled “What’s Les Reading”; for a time, the site also offered a video of him lecturing at Harvard.
As of July 2020, the website’s home page is completely devoid of Wexner’s image, and his name – aside from the name of the foundation itself – is nowhere to be seen. All that remains of the family’s once illustrious online presence is a single large photo of Wexner’s wife, Abigail, and two mentions of his name in the opening description of the foundation’s “History and Mission” section.
Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of Jewish history at Temple University and a previous recipient of a Wexner graduate fellowship, said she interpreted the changes as an “effort to decenter Les Wexner from the Wexner Foundation, to focus more on Abigail and the mission of the foundation.”
In response to a question from Haaretz about Wexner’s apparent disappearance from the foundation website, a spokesperson replied: “Our website is being redesigned and reconfigured. Current content is temporary and should not be misconstrued as any statement about our relationship with and pride in our founder.”
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Severing ties with Epstein
The issue of whether Wexner – who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of time and energy to the enterprise – should reduce his role in its operations in the wake of the scandal surrounding Jeffrey Epstein has never been directly addressed by the foundation.
Epstein, Wexner’s former business associate and a past trustee of the foundation, died in prison in August 2019 after being charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, involving girls as young as 14. In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to procuring an underage girl for prostitution and soliciting a prostitute and spent a year in prison under unusually lenient conditions – the result of a generous plea deal with the Florida state prosecution.
There has never been evidence that Wexner was in any way directly complicit in enabling Epstein’s crimes. However, at least one of Epstein’s accusers told the Washington Post she was repeatedly molested in a house on the Wexner estate in New Albany, Ohio, in 1996, and quoted Epstein as saying “Les loves me. He’ll let me do anything.”
In a statement issued in July 2019 after Epstein faced the more serious sex trafficking charges, Wexner told the world he had “severed all ties with Mr. Epstein nearly 12 years ago,” and “would not have continued to work with any individual capable of such egregious, sickening behavior as has been reported about him.”
Wexner “regretted” that he ever crossed paths with Epstein, the statement concluded.
“When Mr. Epstein was my personal money manager, he was involved in many aspects of my financial life. But let me assure you that I was NEVER aware of the illegal activity charged in the indictment.”
This February, the Wexner Foundation released a report containing the conclusions of what it called an “independent review” by a Columbus-based law firm, Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter Co. The review, commissioned by the foundation itself, scrutinized relevant documents and interviewed staff and trustees, including Leslie and Abigail Wexner. Foundation President Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson announced the findings in an email to the Wexner community, saying that the review concluded that “Epstein was never involved in determining Foundation policy” or “any role whatsoever in screening, identifying or selecting participants for any of our leadership initiatives” and served purely as “a functionary executing documents and facilitating the required financial support from the Wexners.”
In the same month, Wexner announced he was stepping down as chairman of L Brands, the apparel empire he founded in the 1960s, and was selling a majority stake in Victoria’s Secret to a private equity investor. There was no change announced, however, over the role he played in the foundation or the amount of discretion he was granted in its operations, which, the review stated, he funded almost entirely (90 percent).
A previous example of a mysterious and controversial move made by the foundation under Wexner’s leadership was being scrutinized in Israel recently: a $2.3 million payment made to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak by the foundation in 2004-2006, which neither the foundation nor Barak has come forward to explain since it was revealed by a right-wing Israeli journalist in 2018.
During Barak’s attempted political comeback in 2019, he was dogged by questions regarding the payment, together with his relationship with Epstein. Barak was attacked and challenged repeatedly by the Netanyahu campaign regarding the payment, and photographs of Barak leaving Epstein’s apartment were published in British newspaper the Daily Mail.
In response to an investigation by Israel’s Channel 12, the foundation released a statement last weekend clarifying that the money was paid to Barak between 2004-2006 for two studies he was to have written for the foundation – one on leadership and the other on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only one report was ultimately completed, but Barak kept the full amount of the grant.
Public and moral disappointment
Wexner’s apparent unchecked discretion to use foundation funds in such a manner – along with the Epstein taint – has led Corwin Berman and other former Wexner fellows to believe that the foundation’s structure needs to be retooled far beyond a revamp of the website.
The loudest public cry for major structural change has come from Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Wexner alumnus who has participated in a number of Wexner Foundation events. Kurtzer has called on Wexner and his wife to surrender their control over the foundation’s decisions, create a board with “outsiders who have equal votes” and officially hand over “autonomous leadership of its direction to its capable professional leaders.”
For Kurtzer, the “independent” review on Epstein and the changes on the website fall far short of addressing the larger ethical issues at hand in a “public and morally serious” way.
Kurtzer said in a phone interview he was “disappointed that there hasn’t been the reckoning that there should be. … The real reckoning that I wanted to see happening was a redesign of the foundation’s governance.
The foundation, he added, still lacks transparency in regard to who its trustees and decision-makers are. In the foundation’s 990 tax form in 2018, Wexner was one of only two people listed as “trustees” of the foundation. The other was Dennis Hersch, the Wexner family’s current financial adviser.
Corwin Berman says there may indeed be a “quiet, deliberative and slow change afoot” in the Wexner Foundation. The problem is, aside from a tweaked website, nobody has heard about it.
“What is distressing to me is a lack of communication about the changes that are happening,” she said. “It’s one thing to communicate – as they have – that this is going to take a while, it’s going to take a lot of thought and work. But those words start to feel like just words if we aren’t also learning what kind of actions the leaders of the foundation and the philanthropists themselves have decided are important.”
Over the past year, painful questions about Epstein have been discussed privately and extensively in email chains and WhatsApp groups populated by Wexner program alumni like Kurtzer and Corwin Berman. Concerns later intensified regarding business practices in Wexner’s company, L Brands, when the New York Times published an exposé of sexual harassment within the Wexner empire, focusing on the Victoria’s Secret lingerie chain. The Times story told of Wexner’s inaction when complaints of harassment were taken to him, and accused Wexner himself of belittling women.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and another former Wexner fellow, noted that even years before the Epstein, Barak or sexual harassment controversies hit the headlines, there were already discussions among Wexner fellows regarding suspicions that Wexner’s clothing brands may have been connected to unethical labor practices.
“It’s an ongoing conundrum in the nonprofit world, and especially in social justice work: Do you take money that’s almost always tainted in some way or the other, in order to do work in the world to ... undo the conditions that allowed philanthropists to earn very large amounts of money on the backs of other people in the first place?” Jacobs said in a telephone interview.
“Ultimately it’s not just about Wexner,” she added. “There’s a bigger issue about money in the Jewish community – all philanthropy, really. It’s there in almost any major foundation, with any dominant and powerful major donor: most people who have acquired very large amounts of money have done it with some ethical lapses.”
The most important step in addressing this contradiction, Corwin Berman said, is acknowledging that it exists – which is where she takes issue with the foundation’s current approach if it is, as she believes, making gradual reforms in a quiet and secretive way, behind close doors.
“In a certain way, it replicates some of the problems that have gotten us to where we are – not by working through some of these changes in a more open, self-reflective and transparent way about power and how power operates,” she said. “It seems to me if there’s really going to be a change in culture, that the changes should not be happening slowly and in a submerged way, but should be named and identified,” she added.
Beyond the website, and even beyond the idea of creating a wider decision-making board with better distribution of power, she noted, is the need for open soul-searching in the face of the story of Epstein’s abuses and his history with the foundation.
“The whole philosophy of honing this kind of powerful leadership and creating an elite cadre of Wexner fellows and Wexner leaders, which is a philosophy I did feel part of, really needs to be challenged and questioned ... even if we don’t have clear or credible evidence that Wexner had specific connections to any of the criminal acts. There needs to be an opening of a very different conversation about multiple layers of abuse that have not just been tolerated, but actually sanctioned by systems that empower those people who have access to a lot of resources, [and lets them] operate above scrutiny or beyond rebuke.”
Even if change and better practices are put in place in the Wexner Foundation, she concluded, more needs to be said out loud. If better organizational practices are the sole result, she said, “lost in the shuffle will be the incredible human toll of what happened because Epstein had access to Wexner’s money,” and benefited from a culture that ”protected and allowed really powerful men to do whatever they want.”