WASHINGTON — Press releases from Jeffrey Epstein's foundation paint the wealthy registered sex offender as a generous donor to large American hospitals, top 10 research universities and children and youth charities in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he owns an island.
But Epstein's largesse was much smaller than what he represented, according to an NBC News review of public records and interviews with officials at the institutions named as recipients of his gifts. In reality Epstein's contributions, whether personal or via his foundation, were a drop in the bucket compared to the donations of other wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
In press releases for the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation, Epstein claims he donated to over 100 organizations after he pleaded guilty to a state charge in a deal with federal prosecutors in Florida and registered as a sex offender in 2008. From 2015 to 2017, Epstein's foundation, Gratitude America Ltd., which was first revealed by the Daily Beast, gave away $1.84 million to charities around the country, according to federal tax filings. Epstein also said he gave $30 million to Harvard University prior to his 2008 plea deal.
RELATED: The Jeffrey Epstein case
But some of the alleged recipients of Epstein's donations told NBC News they had not received any donations or disputed the size of his gifts. In addition, the Chronicle of Philanthropy keeps a running database from 2006 of major gifts over a million dollars and has no record of any gifts from Jeffrey Epstein, according to staff writer Maria DiMento.
NBC News reached out to 56 charities that were listed as grant recipients in multiple press releases from Epstein's foundation or his foundation's IRS filings between 2010 and 2017. Thirty-two organizations did not return requests for comment. Of the 24 organizations that responded, 10 said they had no record of any donations from Epstein or Gratitude America.
For example, Epstein lists New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art as a recipient of contributions from the Jeffrey Epstein Foundation between 2010 and 2012. According to a spokesperson for the museum, however, "The Metropolitan Museum of Art has not received any major donations from Jeffrey Epstein or his foundation, only that he purchased tickets to two benefits in the early 1990s."
Other organizations that said they had no record of a donation included Duke University, Ohio State, and the Metropolitan Opera. The Elton John Aids Foundation said it had not received a donation, but Gratitude America's filings show a donation.
Five organizations confirmed donations from Epstein or his foundation. The Santa Fe Institute says the last donation it received from Epstein was in 2010. The institute lists its mission on its tax filing as a "transdisciplinary research community that expands the boundaries of scientific understanding." Jenna Marshall, spokesperson for the institute, told NBC News in an email that Epstein's behavior was "appalling" and that SFI had not accepted any money from him since 2010. "Following news of Mr. Epstein's actions," said Marshall, "the SFI leadership team held a meeting and unanimously decided the Institute would not accept any donations from Mr. Epstein."
NautilusThink, which publishes the science magazine Nautilus, received a $25,000 donation from Epstein's foundation in 2017, according to federal filings. John Steele, publisher and editorial director of Nautilus, said, "We have not returned it. But we're starting to think about it now."
One group listed in the press releases said it had declined a donation from Epstein. A Haiti-based children's charity called the Edeyo Foundation told NBC News it received a $25,000 check from Epstein in 2011 but quickly returned the money.
Two other groups listed as getting contributions between 2010 and 2012, Harvard University and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said they had received gifts, but not in that time frame.
Epstein donated $6.5 million to Harvard in 2003. A source familiar with that donation was not aware of any additional gifts from Epstein or his foundation, despite references in Epstein foundation press releases to $30 million in donations.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society said Epstein gave $1,000 in 2007 and $10,000 in 2019, but nothing between 2010 and 2012.
Epstein's 2019 donation to the group was for a bicycle fundraiser. Epstein sponsored at least one rider. Tami Caesar, chief financial and operations officer for the society, said via email, "It is our policy not to return donations that were solicited by an event participant. The Society will not knowingly accept funds from Mr. Epstein in the future, as it is known he is under a criminal investigation."
Six organizations that responded to NBC News inquiries either declined to comment or said they did not know or would not check if Epstein was a donor.
One of the grants listed by Gratitude America was a $150,000 gift to MIT. A spokesperson for the school, Kimberly Allen, told NBC News via email, "While donors, including foundations, may confirm their contributions to the Institute, MIT does not typically comment on the details of gifts or gift agreements."
Lawyers for Epstein did not respond to a request for comment.
The Epstein foundations
Epstein made donations through two non-profits, though his press releases referred only to a charity called "Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation." The last tax filing for the Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation was in 2002.
Filings with the New York State Board of Charities list Epstein as the president of the U.S. Virgin Islands-based Gratitude America Ltd. One of the 2017 recipients of Gratitude America funds, the Kuhn Foundation in Pasadena, listed its $150,000 donation from Gratitude America as a donation from the "Jeffrey Epstein Foundation" on its IRS filing. The Kuhn Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
Epstein registered another foundation called Enhanced Education (J. Epstein Virgin Islands Foundation, Inc.) with the IRS in 2002. It gave away $281,477 to unnamed organizations, according to IRS filings, before his run-in with the law. But the foundation has not made any publicly available filings with the IRS since Epstein's 2008 plea deal.