Multiple women say billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment that included propositioning them for sex and commenting on their bodies, according to a report published Thursday by The New York Times and ProPublica.
Steinhardt, a retired hedge fund founder who has financed some of the most high-profile Jewish nonprofits in the country, regularly made inappropriate comments toward women, many of whom were seeking his support, for more than two decades, nearly two dozen people told the Times and ProPublica.
Seven women said Steinhardt made sexual requests of them, including having a “ménage à trois” in a bathtub. None of the women said Steinhardt attempted to touch them inappropriately.
Steinhardt, through his spokesman, denied ever “seriously, credibly” propositioning anyone, the Times and ProPublica reported. He said in a statement that he regrets making comments that were “boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb,” but that he had meant them “in jest” at the time.
The 78-year-old Brooklyn native said in his statement that he had never in his life “inappropriately” touched someone.
Two women filed separate lawsuits in 2012 and 2013 accusing Steinhardt of sexually harassing them while they worked in a Manhattan art gallery. Karen Simons alleged in her lawsuit that the billionaire asked her over the phone if she would have sex with him after inquiring whether her husband satisfied her.
Steinhardt said in a deposition taken in Simons’ case that he did not recall making sexually loaded comments to the two women.
Another woman, Sheila Katz, told the Times that Steinhardt repeatedly asked her if she would have sex with him while she met with him in 2015 while working for Hillel International, the prominent Jewish college outreach organization.
“Institutions in the Jewish world have long known about his behavior, and they have looked the other way,” said Katz, a vice president at Hillel International. “No one was surprised when I shared that this happened.”
Steinhardt’s foundations have donated over $125 million to charitable causes since 2003, according to the Times/ProPublica report. His name appears on buildings at several New York institutions, including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1999, alongside Seagram heir Charles Bronfman, Steinhardt co-founded Birthright Israel, a nonprofit that has since sent hundreds of thousands of young Jews on free trips to Israel.
One woman who formerly worked for Birthright Israel alleged that Steinhardt asked if she and another female colleague would like to have a threesome with him.
“He set a horrifying standard of what women who work in the Jewish community were expected to endure,” said Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, who told the Times that Steinhardt suggested in the mid-1990s that she become his mistress while he funded her first rabbinical position.
The New York Jewish Week first reported in September that Hillel International was investigating sexual harassment claims against Steinhardt. The organization stopped accepting donations from Steinhardt last year when it hired a law firm to conduct an investigation, which concluded in January that the philanthropist had sexually harassed Katz and another employee in a separate incident.
The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, which he founded in 1994, posted a statement to its website on Thursday accusing the Times of trying to mislead readers by distorting Steinhardt’s “well-known sense of humor.”
“Our society is being greatly improved by exposing how too many prominent men have misused their power to coerce women into sexual activity. This article does not in any way accuse Michael of engaging in that kind of reprehensible conduct,” the statement reads in part. “Admittedly, Michael’s sense of humor can be insensitive, and he has apologized for the unintended bad feelings his remarks have caused.”
“Michael is an equal-opportunity teaser ― teasing men and women alike,” the statement says. “The reporters apparently overlooked this fact because teasing men and women, alike, doesn’t make for a great story.”
Head over to The New York Times or ProPublica to read the full report.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.