MIT Media Lab co-founder defends decision to take Jeffrey Epstein money

Jon Swaine
Photograph: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

A co-founder of an embattled department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has defended its decision to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the convicted sex offender and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

Related: Jeffrey Epstein's influence in the science world is a symptom of larger problems | Kate Darling

Nicholas Negroponte, one of the creators of the MIT Media Lab, said at a town hall-style meeting on Wednesday he had recommended taking the money from Epstein, who killed himself in jail in New York this month while awaiting trial on federal charges.

“If you wind back the clock, I would still say ‘take it’,” Negroponte said, according to a report by MIT Technology Review which said Negroponte “repeated, more emphatically, ‘take it’”.

Media Lab director Joi Ito has come under sustained criticism for taking money from Epstein, who cultivated links to many prominent scientists, since 2013. Ito reportedly said at Wednesday’s meeting the funding totalled $525,000.

Epstein had in 2008 pleaded guilty to a charge of soliciting prostitution from an underage girl, as part of a lenient deal with federal prosecutors in Florida. He served 13 months of an 18-month prison sentence, much of it on day release.

The plea deal came under renewed scrutiny in recent months following a series of articles published by the Miami Herald, leading to new charges being filed against Epstein by federal prosecutors in New York.

Alex Acosta, who as US attorney in Miami oversaw the deal, resigned as US labor secretary. Epstein’s relationships with powerful men including Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew have come under intense scrutiny.

Negroponte’s remarks reportedly startled some attendees at Wednesday’s meeting. One woman in the front row was said to have started crying. A Media Lab scientist twice told Negroponte to “shut up”.

In a subsequent email to the Boston Globe, Negroponte said his view was that the Media Lab was right to take Epstein’s money following his 2008 guilty plea, but would not have done so following the more serious recent charges of sex trafficking.

“We all knew he went to jail for soliciting underage prostitution,” Negroponte told the Globe. “But we thought he served his term and repented.”

Negroponte told the Globe he had discussed with Epstein what he called a “new leaf” that the disgraced financier had supposedly turned over.