Leon Black Finally Opens Up About His Pal Jeffrey Epstein

Kevork Djansezian/Reuters
Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

Billionaire Leon Black is speaking out about his ties to Jeffrey Epstein for the first time since resigning from his private equity firm, claiming the famous men in the sex-trafficker’s circle likely didn’t know “that Jeffrey was a pedophile.”

The ex-Apollo CEO—whose relationship with Epstein tarnished his name and led to lawsuits accusing him of sexual abuse—exclusively sat down with Puck’s William Cohan to defend his reputation amid continued scrutiny over his relationship with the late sex offender.

Cohan wrote that the 72-year-old mogul grabbed a piece of paper from his suit jacket in the middle of their lunch with his PR team and “scribbled a bunch of names of people who had also hung out with Epstein at one time or another.” Black listed former presidents Clinton and Trump, billionaires Mort Zuckerman, Reid Hoffman and Tom Pritzker, as well as Epstein’s old JPMorgan buddy Jes Staley and academic Noam Chomsky.

“I’m not in any way, shape, or form defending Jeffrey,” Black, who knew Epstein since the mid-1990s, told Cohan. “I’m defending me. I don’t believe any of these guys knew that Jeffrey was a pedophile. I certainly didn’t.”

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“I thought he was a fascinating guy. So yes, I spent time with him. I’d go up, have lunch or breakfast with him because I lived two blocks from him, and we would talk about tax and estate planning and financial things.”

Black added that he’d dine at Epstein’s New York mansion with others including director Woody Allen, TV host Dick Cavett, and Trump’s far-right strategist Steve Bannon.

“Everybody looks at it through the lens of, This is Public Enemy Number One for being a pedophile. He was smart. And I thought he performed services for a bunch of [his associates], yes. And he was a bit offbeat and counterculture and eccentric, yes,” Black continued.

As The Daily Beast reported, Black stepped down from Apollo not long after the company enlisted a law firm to independently investigate his relationship with Epstein in 2020, as stories about Epstein’s sex-trafficking scheme and his accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell continued to make headlines. In the wake of Epstein’s 2019 arrest and jailhouse death, Black fended off questions from media and investors about his entanglements with him.

The Apollo probe—which Black now claims he requested—found that Black paid Epstein $158 million between 2012 and 2017 for estate and tax-planning advice and portrayed a relationship much deeper than Black had publicly described.

The billionaire art collector has vehemently denied any wrongdoing in connection to Epstein and the allegations that he sexually abused women at Epstein’s lair.

Still, Black’s friendship with Epstein has continued to cost him.

While he and one of his accusers, Cheri Pierson, decided to drop their litigation in February, another woman’s suit alleging he raped her when she was 16 is pending.

In January 2023, Black paid the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands $62.5 million in cash to be released from any claims tied to its investigation into Epstein. The settlement, according to the Times, stated that it should not be interpreted as an “admission of liability.”

One Epstein victim’s settlement with the financier’s estate included a carve-out provision allowing her to pursue claims against Staley and Black.

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Cohan asked what went through Black’s mind after Epstein’s 2006 arrest for soliciting a prostitute, which preceded a federal sex-trafficking probe into Epstein’s abuse of minors and a sweetheart deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami that led to a cushy jail sentence.

Black replied that he believed Epstein when he got caught up with a “17-year-old prostitute” who lied about her age and didn’t view it as “the end of the world.”

“I took it seriously,” Black said. “But I didn’t take it that seriously. I mean, he was with a 17-year-old prostitute, got prosecuted for it, and got put away for a year.” The billionaire added, “And, you know, according to him, even that person had shown an I.D. that she wasn’t underage. My feeling is, there are serious things and there are things that are less serious. I didn’t think this was the end of the world, frankly.”

Black insisted he stayed close with other wealthy people who went to jail: lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, financier Michael Milken, and Sotheby’s owner Alfred Taubman.

“We’re still friends. They all went to jail. I didn’t think being with a 17-year-old prostitute who said that she had proof she was over 17 was that big a deal.”

Black said he first met Epstein in 1996 through Wall Street polymath Elliot “Skip” Stein Jr. and learned he was a Rockefeller University appointee, member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission and hung out with a host of high-powered people including Israeli politician Ehud Barak.

Epstein would earn a spot on Black’s family foundation and help him avoid tax liabilities with trusts he set up for his children, before advising him on his family office and transactions involving his artworks, jets, and yachts.

Black called Epstein “an intriguing figure” who “was almost like a James Bond villain because all his staff were good-looking women.”

“Not underage,” Black added, “but good-looking.”

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The billionaire noted that he once flew on Epstein’s jet to Boston with two of his children to visit Harvard and M.I.T. and that “his pilot was a beautiful girl with blond hair down to her waist, in a black turtleneck.” (One alleged co-conspirator of Epstein, who after Epstein’s 2019 arrest came forward as a victim, was a trained pilot. It’s unclear if she’s the individual Black met.)

At turns in the interview, Black seemed to paint himself as a victim.

As news outlets including The New York Times ferreted out his payments to Epstein, Black asked the Apollo board to hire an outside law firm to review his ties to the trafficker.

“I’m the only one who asked for the investigation to be done—what a schmuck!—of my relationship with Epstein,” Black told Cohan. “I asked for it because I knew I had done nothing wrong.”

The January 2021 report from Dechert LLP stated that it uncovered “no evidence that Black or any employee of the Family Office or Apollo was involved in any way with Epstein’s criminal activities at any time. There is no evidence that Epstein ever introduced Black, or offered to introduce Black, to any underage woman.”

Dechert also noted that in early 2017, Black made two loans to Epstein totaling $30.5 million “in connection with an art transaction involving Epstein.” Epstein would repay only $10 million despite Black’s repeated demands for reimbursement.

Black even told Cohan that before Apollo’s investigation, he never kept track of how much he was paying the convicted pervert. “He had credibility in my eyes and we did a bunch of things. But the paying [of Epstein] was seriatim. I never had tallied it. And frankly, that number that came out was much bigger than I had thought. Because I don't follow, in my family office, everything,” Black claimed.

“And you can say that’s implausible. … How is this possible that this financial genius could throw away these amounts of money? There must be something more there. Yeah, I get it. But there isn’t.”

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Black’s bond with Epstein, Cohan writes, wasn’t enough to end his relationship with Apollo. Instead, the falling out arrived after Guzel Ganieva, a Russian former model he dated, filed a lawsuit accusing him of rape and sexual violence. (In turn, Black accused her of extortion, saying he paid her millions during and after their affair.)

“The world is an ugly place,” Black told Cohan. “And it’s a beautiful place, okay? It’s both.”

“This has been a terrible experience for the last two and a half years,” Black added. “I mean, to have spent 40 years building up a stellar reputation and believing in excellence—and everything I’ve done is about excellence—and then to have it torn apart based on lies, fabrications, MeToo, woke—and I’m a huge believer in women’s causes—it’s surreal.”

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