By the time Melinda French Gates decided to end her 27-year marriage, her husband was known worldwide as a leading software pioneer, billionaire and philanthropist.
But in some circles, Bill Gates had also earned a reputation for questionable conduct on the job. It draws new scrutiny amid the breakup of one of the richest and most powerful couples in the world.
In 2018, French Gates was unhappy with her husband’s handling of an undisclosed sexual harassment complaint against his longtime manager, according to two people familiar with the matter. After Gates decided to settle the matter confidentially, French Gates insisted that an outside investigation be carried out. Fund manager Michael Larson remains in his post.
On at least a few occasions, Gates has sued women who worked for him at Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to people with direct knowledge of his openings. At meetings at the foundation, he was sometimes contemptuous of his wife, witnesses said.
And then there was Jeffrey Epstein, whom Gates knew from 2011, three years after Epstein, accused of sex trafficking in girls, pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from a minor. French Gates had expressed unease about her husband spending time with the sex offender, but Gates continued to do so, according to people who were or were told of the gatherings with the two men.
So in October 2019, when Gates and Epstein’s relationship came to light, French Gates was unhappy. She hired divorce lawyers, setting in motion a process that culminated this month with news of their marriage ending.
Also read: What the Gates Divorce Means for the Gates Foundation
It is unclear how much French Gates knew of her husband’s behavior or how much that contributed to their separation.
The news of their divorce has drawn attention to a marriage whose dissolution has significant social and financial implications. Several people said that during their marriage, Gates engaged in work-related behavior that they felt was inappropriate for someone at the head of a large publicly traded company and one of the most influential philanthropies in the world.
Bridgitt Arnold, spokesperson for Gates, challenged the qualification of his conduct and the couple’s divorce.
“It is extremely disappointing that there have been so many untruths published about the cause, circumstances and timeline of Bill Gates’ divorce,” said Arnold.
“Your description of her meetings with Epstein and others on philanthropy is inaccurate, including who attended,” she continued. “Likewise, any claim that Gates spoke disparagingly about his marriage or Melinda is false. The allegation of employee mistreatment is also false. Rumors and speculation surrounding Gates’ divorce are growing more and more absurd, and it is unfortunate that people with little or no knowledge of the situation are being labeled “sources.”
Gates and French Gates met at work. He was technically her boss. He ran Microsoft, and she started working there in 1987 as a product manager the year after graduating from college.
Throughout their relationship, the two have showcased the cute aspects of their office romance. He flirted with her when they were seated together at a conference, then asked her out when they met in a company parking lot, according to French Gates, who described the beginnings of their relationship at the time. ‘a public appearance in 2016.
Long after their marriage in 1994, Gates occasionally pursued women in the office.
In 2006, for example, he attended a presentation by a Microsoft employee. Gates, who was the chairman of the company at the time, left the meeting and immediately emailed the woman inviting her to dinner, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
Read also: The separate worlds of Bill and Melinda Gates
“If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened,” Gates wrote in an email, according to a person who read it to The New York Times.
The woman was indeed uncomfortable, both people said. She decided to pretend it never happened.
A year or two later, Gates was traveling to New York on behalf of the Gates Foundation. He was traveling with a woman who worked for the foundation. Standing with her at a cocktail party, Gates lowered his voice and said, “I want to see you. Do you want to dine with me? according to the woman.
The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not want public attention to be associated with the description of an unwanted lead, said she felt uncomfortable but has laughed to avoid answering.
Six current and former employees of Microsoft, the foundation and the company that manages the Gates’ fortunes said these incidents, and others more recently, have at times created an uncomfortable work environment. Gates was known for his clumsy approaches to women in and out of the office. His behavior has fueled much discussion among employees about his personal life.
Some employees said that while they disapproved of Gates’ behavior, they did not see him as a predator. They said he didn’t pressure women to submit to his advances for the sake of their careers, and he seemed to think he gave women the option to refuse his advances.
Gates’ actions ran counter to the women’s empowerment agenda that French Gates was promoting on the world stage. On October 2, 2019, for example, she said she would spend $ 1 billion to promote “the power and influence of women in America.”
“Even though most women are now working full time (or more), we still take on the majority of caregiving responsibilities; we face pervasive sexual harassment and discrimination; we are surrounded by biased and stereotypical representations that perpetuate harmful gender norms, ”she wrote in a Time magazine column announcing the engagement.
At the foundation, Gates made sure his voice was dominant and could be contemptuous of French Gates, crying some of the foundation’s employees, according to people who attended the foundation’s meetings with the Gates.
In 2017, the couple faced an allegation of sexual harassment against a close associate.
For nearly 30 years, Larson has been Gates’ financial manager, generating solid returns on Gatese’s combined investment portfolio and the $ 174 billion foundation through a covert deal called Cascade Investment. Cascade owned assets such as stocks, bonds, hotels, and large tracts of farmland, and he also put the Gates’ money in other investment vehicles. One was a venture capital firm called Rally Capital, which is located in the same building Cascade occupies in Kirkland, Washington.
Rally Capital had a stake in a nearby bicycle store. In 2017, the woman who ran the bike shop hired a lawyer, who wrote a letter to Gates and French Gates.
The letter stated that Larson sexually harassed the manager of the bike shop, according to three people familiar with the claim. The letter stated that the woman had tried to deal with the situation on her own, without success, and she had asked the Gates for help. If they didn’t resolve the situation, the letter said, she could take legal action.
The woman struck a deal in 2018 in which she signed a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for payment, the three said.
While Gates believed that ended the case, French Gates was not happy with the outcome, two people said. She asked a law firm to conduct an independent review of the allegations of the woman and the culture of Cascade. Larson was put on leave while the investigation was ongoing, but was eventually reinstated. (It’s unclear whether the investigation exonerated Larson.) He remains in charge of Cascade.
A spokesperson for Larson made no comment.
About a year after the settlement – and less than two weeks after French Gates ‘column in Time – the New York Times ran an article detailing Gates’ relationship with Epstein. The article reported that the two had spent time together on several occasions, flying in Epstein’s private jet and attending a late-night rally at his New York townhouse. “His lifestyle is very different and quite intriguing, although that wouldn’t work for me,” Gates wrote to his colleagues in 2011, after meeting Epstein for the first time.
(Arnold, the spokesperson for Gates, said at the time that he regretted the relationship with Epstein. She said Gates was unaware that the plane belonged to Epstein and that Gates was referring to the unique decor of the house. ‘Epstein.)
The Times article included details of Gates’ interactions with Epstein that French Gates had not previously known, according to people familiar with the matter. Shortly after it was posted, she began consulting with divorce lawyers and other counselors who would help the couple divide their assets, one of the people said. The Wall Street Journal had previously reported on when its lawyers were hired.
The Times revelations particularly upset French Gates as she previously expressed unease over her husband associated with Epstein, who died by suicide in federal custody in 2019, shortly after being charged with sex trafficking girls. French Gates expressed unease in the fall of 2013 after she and Gates had dinner with Epstein at his townhouse, according to people briefed on the dinner and its aftermath. (The incident was reported earlier by The Daily Beast.)
For years, Gates continued to go to dinners and meetings at Epstein’s home, where Epstein typically surrounded himself with young and attractive women, said two people in attendance and two others who were told about the gatherings.
Arnold said Gates never socialized or attended parties with Epstein, and she denied any young and attractive women attended their meetings. “Bill only met with Epstein to discuss philanthropy,” Arnold said.
On at least one occasion, Gates remarked in Epstein’s presence that he was unhappy in his marriage, according to people who heard the comments.
Epstein offered his tax advice and fundraising services to Gates, although there is no indication that Gates did any business with him, according to people familiar with Epstein’s speech and finances.
Some time after 2013, Epstein brought Gates up to meet Leon Black, the head of Apollo Investments who had a multi-faceted business and personal relationship with Epstein, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The meeting took place at the Apollo offices in New York.
It is not known if French Gates was aware of the latest meetings with Epstein. One person who spoke to her recently said that “she has decided that it is better for her to leave her marriage as she enters the next phase of her life.”