Leon Black’s downfall confounds the legacy of #MeToo on Wall Street

A wrought-iron door guards the address near Central Park where Guzel Ganieva lives on the upper floors of a townhouse dating from the Gilded Age. On a winter morning two years ago, the doorman stationed there took a hard look at two uninvited guests. The visitors, a man and a woman, wore the thousand-yard stare that is the unofficial uniform of New York City police detectives. One of them flashed a badge, and the doorman let them inside.

The visitors had prepared carefully. They knew how to recognise Ganieva, a Russian-born former model who had moved to Manhattan with her son. They knew about Ganieva’s relationship with Leon Black, the Wall Street billionaire who had recently become chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. And they had seen her Twitter account, created days earlier, on which she accused Black of sexual harassment and abuse.

If Ganieva’s visitors had asked how she first became acquainted with Black, she would have told them she was in her twenties when they met at a party in 2008. She claims he promised to advance her career and that their relationship became increasingly manipulative and punctuated by violent assaults. At one point, she would allege in court, Black pressured her to have sex with his friend Jeffrey Epstein, then on day-release in Florida after pleading guilty to sex crimes. (Black denies the allegations; Ganieva’s suit is on appeal.)

But the two visitors were not cops, and they hadn’t come to ask questions. “They tricked my doorman,” Ganieva told an operator when she dialled 911 the next day. The pair only revealed their true purpose after gaining entry to her penthouse. “They said: ‘We are working for [a] lawyer,’” Ganieva recounted.

In December 2000, New York became the first city in the US to pass a law allowing survivors of violent sex crimes to sue their attackers in civil court, even if their allegations are not taken up by prosecutors working for the Manhattan district attorney. “Nobody wants to be caught voting against this one,” a Republican lawmaker confided. “It’ll come back to haunt you that you opposed . . . protecting women from crime.” The law created an alternative path to justice, which enterprising lawyers have used to win billions in compensation for clients.

Guzel Ganieva in New York in 2013 © David X Prutting/BFA

In Ganieva’s penthouse, the two investigators handed her a business card. They told her she needed to speak to their boss who, they claimed, was one of New York’s pre-eminent lawyers. But they were too late. Ganieva was already talking to the city’s most prominent #MeToo litigator, and together they were about to prosecute a war against the most powerful man on Wall Street.


Leon Black imagined himself an intellectual, not a businessman. Although he had enrolled at Harvard Business School at the insistence of his father, his true passions were Shakespeare and modern art. But after his father’s death in 1975 at the age of 53, Black took a job with Drexel Burnham Lambert.

Unlike the most prestigious Wall Street banks, which on the whole worked for blue-chip clients, Drexel’s closest ties were to ambitious outsiders. Its most powerful executive, Michael Milken, pitched “high-yield” bonds as an attractive alternative to debt issued by safer, investment-grade companies. Everyone else called them “junk”, but Milken was a gifted salesman. Every year, a Drexel banker named Don Engel convened a gathering where, mingling with glamorous women, Drexel clients toasted creative destruction. They called it the Predators’ Ball.

Before he turned 40, Black had risen to become Drexel’s head of mergers and acquisitions. One of his clients was Carl Icahn, who used Drexel funds to take over Trans World Airlines in 1985. “His word has always been his bond,” Icahn told the FT. “All you needed was a handshake. I cannot say this about many of the well-known people on Wall Street.” Only in one respect did Black conform to the archetype of a successful banker. “Leon did suffer from this malady,” Icahn said at a charity dinner some years ago, where he delivered a roast in Black’s honour. “I think he’s better now, but he suffered from greed.”

(Black declined to comment for this article; unless otherwise stated, his comments are taken from public records.)

The party at Drexel lasted until 1989, when Milken was arrested on suspicion of securities fraud. The junk bond market entered free-fall, leading to a wave of bankruptcies. The failure of one of Drexel’s biggest clients, the Executive Life Insurance Company, destroyed the retirement incomes of thousands of Americans. Working in borrowed office space, Black put together a new venture and set out to change the way that insurance companies, pension funds and foreign governments invest the trillions of dollars they control.

These institutional investors had typically divided their assets between stocks and bonds. Black proposed “alternative assets”, which could be anything really: office towers, the debts of distressed borrowers, even entire companies. “Alternatives” would typically be illiquid, meaning they had to be held long term. They would also be exempt from most of the regulations that constrain public companies. To gain access, investors had to lock up money in one of Black’s funds for up to a decade, giving him near-total control, an annual fee and a share of profits.

The new company, later named Apollo Global Management, after the sun god, was led by Black and five other former Drexel executives. They had their pick of the bank’s former analysts and chose Marc Rowan and Josh Harris. Early on, Apollo paid cents on the dollar for bonds Drexel clients had purchased at full price. “There were a lot of . . . very good assets, good companies with bad balance sheets,” Black said years later, without dwelling on the role he had played in configuring some of the balance sheets in the first place. Apollo made hundreds of millions of dollars from the trade.

The air was cold, and the banquet table heaved with starchy Georgian delicacies. Government officials drifted in and out of Zurab Tsereteli’s dacha. The host’s title, president of the Russian Academy of Arts, seemed to make him a natural acquaintance for a collector such as Black. But it was misleading. Tsereteli had close ties to Russian politicians, including, some believed, Vladimir Putin.

That Black was in the room was testament to the hunger for profit that drove his every move at Apollo. The expansive social network of David Geovanis, a former banker he had known since Drexel, helped. Soon after the bank’s demise, Geovanis moved to Russia, where, according to Black, he “was always putting different people together”. Black recalled that Geovanis had “very good social skills”, although he was “probably not as serious analytically”. In a report published in 2020, the US Senate Committee on Intelligence wrote that Geovanis had “engaged in a pattern of behaviour regarding women that made him, and potentially others around him, vulnerable to exploitation by . . . Russian intelligence”.

In 1996, Black travelled to Moscow with Donald Trump, who hoped to emblazon his name on an Apollo-financed office tower. Geovanis helped organise the visit. According to the Senate committee, the future US president “might have had a brief romantic relationship” with a former winner of the Miss Moscow beauty pageant whom Geovanis brought with him to a party. Black told US Senate investigators that he did not recall any compromising behaviour. He remembered going to a concert and a “discotheque”. He later said that he and Trump “might have been in a strip club together”. (Trump did not respond to a request for comment. Geovanis declined to comment on the committee’s characterisation of his conduct around women.)

Trump never put his name on a Moscow tower, but shortly after he entered the White House in 2017, Geovanis travelled to the US and, according to the Senate report, looked up long-forgotten acquaintances in the hope of unearthing photographs of the party that Trump had attended with Black. Soon afterwards, Geovanis became chief executive of Somerset Coal International, a small Moscow-based mining technology company whose shareholders included Black. In most quarters on Wall Street, an analytical lightweight said to have shown problematic behaviour around women could expect prompt ejection from a chief executive’s entourage. But following convention was not how Black made money.

Black met Jeffrey Epstein in the mid-1990s, around the time Epstein was buying Little St James, the private island where he later held dozens of girls in sexual servitude. Epstein joined the board of Black’s family foundation in 1997; he is said to have resigned a decade later, although documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service continued to name him as a trustee for years. In 2008, a Florida court convicted Epstein of soliciting a minor for prostitution and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Instead of distancing himself, Black allowed their relationship to deepen.

By then, Apollo had grown to become one of the biggest private equity groups on Wall Street, owning billions of dollars’ worth of assets crucial to the operations of name-brand companies. Its $440bn credit arm makes more business loans than some midsize banks, making it not so much an investment outfit as an alternative financial system. That made Black and his acolytes, Rowan and Harris, billionaires. In public, they presented a united front. But the way they spent their wealth suggested a union of sharply different men. Black accumulated artworks by Pablo Picasso and Edvard Munch. Rowan bought upscale restaurants in the Hamptons. Harris collected sports teams.

For much of the decade between Epstein’s release and his apparent suicide in a federal prison in 2019 while awaiting a new trial, Black appears to have trusted him unwaveringly. Between 2012 and 2017, Black paid Epstein a total of $158mn. He also extended a $30mn loan to a company registered in the name of Epstein’s private pilot. The company, Plan D LLC, owned a Gulfstream jet. In court papers reviewed by the FT, the US Virgin Islands government cites flight logs showing that the plane transported underage girls.

But by the end of 2020, their relationship posed an inescapable threat. With renewed scrutiny of Epstein’s crimes, financial institutions began to put new investments with Apollo on hold. Black asked his board to investigate, and a former federal prosecutor spent months reviewing 60,000 documents and interviewing witnesses.

After the report was published in January 2021, Black claimed vindication. There was no evidence that he had participated in Epstein’s crimes, or known about the worst of them, and lawyers hadn’t found evidence of blackmail. But others at Apollo were shocked by the depth of the financial ties. Even Harris, who had been with Black almost since the beginning, was sceptical. “There’s only one reasonable explanation for why Black made all those payments to Epstein,” former Microsoft executive Richard Emerson wrote in an email to Harris that month. Shortly after, at Harris’s suggestion, Emerson was appointed to Apollo’s board.

Leon and Debra Black at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, May 2018
Leon and Debra Black at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, May 2018 © Paul Zimmerman/ WireImage/ Getty Images

Ultimately, Black was unable to escape the scandal. He pledged to resign as chief executive, while staying on as chairman. Rowan was his chosen successor. In public, Harris was supportive, but some in his circle envisaged a different future. “You are the right person to be CEO,” Emerson told Harris in an email. “If things break, they break fast,” he wrote in another. 

Black’s departure was set for July. But in March, Ganieva took to social media. 


Her gaze had first met Black’s in 2008 at a Manhattan house party. Guzel Ganieva, who described the event in court filings, was invited by someone she knew from modelling. Black was a guest of the host Don Engel, the former Drexel banker who still threw a party every year — even if no one called it a ball any more. This one was held on the second Saturday in March, a date that may have been chosen sardonically because it coincided with International Women’s Day.

Black and Ganieva’s relationship began with lunchtime overtures, then meetings at various apartments, often involving sex. There were gifts and cash disbursements, including two $480,000 loans. Each was documented by a signed and countersigned contract, which specified “a simple interest rate of 5 per cent per annum”. For much of the time she was seeing Black, Ganieva was enrolled at Columbia University, where she earned a degree in mathematics. Her studies entitled her to stay in the US on a student visa. Black paid her tuition. He also paid the rent on her luxury apartment, in which Ganieva’s portrait, commissioned by Black for $40,000, hung prominently. By then, according to Ganieva, the relationship had turned violent, with periodic assaults that inflicted so much pain she sometimes lost consciousness.

When Ganieva completed her studies in 2014, Black arranged a job interview at Goldman Sachs. About 270,000 people applied for the 8,000 openings advertised that year. Ganieva bypassed most of Goldman’s rigorous interview process. In May, she was greeted at the company’s offices by Peter Lyon, one of the two most senior bankers covering financial institutions such as Apollo. Ganieva only sent in a cover letter after the fact. Months elapsed before she received a definitive reply. “I wish we had better news,” Lyon told her by email in November, but “given the macro environment, there are no open jobs . . . right now that work.”

Her visa expiring and without employment prospects, Ganieva left New York for Moscow. Her text messages to Black charted the months that followed. September: “I’m in masters program studying math in Russia version of MIT.” October: “I will be in Rome . . . Come.” December, during a ski trip: “I’m in Courchevel with my son. It’s lovely.” March: “Moscow is too dark, dirty and depressing.” Then, in June 2015: “My dear Leon. How are you? I need to meet with you. It’s both urgent and important.”

The third act of Ganieva and Black’s relationship began at expensive restaurants in New York and London, where they negotiated a deal to purchase Ganieva’s silence. Black’s opening offer was $5mn; she envisaged an amount 20 times higher.

In August 2015, the steel columns of the Seagram building sliced through the sunlight and confined several dozen power lunchers at the Four Seasons restaurant inside a bronze cube. Black asked for consommé; Ganieva chose the watermelon salad. The room was noisy. On the recording that Black secretly made of their encounter, which was played to the FT by someone who asked not to be identified, fragments of speech are obscured by the clatter of porcelain. Their voices are unmistakable: his nasal drawl, her mis-stressed vowels. But the conversation is not easy for an outsider to follow. Someone who merely overhears the words cannot understand them as those two would, in light of whatever history they share. 

At one point in the roughly 40-minute recording, excerpted transcripts of which Black later filed in court, Ganieva claims his friends are making her life “impossible”. She wonders whether he wants to “get rid of” her.

“You were scared that I would go public,” she says.

“Go public with what? With our relationship? That I had an affair, that I treated you well?”

“That you sexually harassed me.”

“How did I sexually harass you?” Black asks, denying the allegation. 

If an answer was visible in Ganieva’s eyes, or her gestures, the audio did not record it. 

The plates are cleared away, and they begin to discuss money. Black would later claim in court that he was being extorted. A brief filed on behalf of Ganieva states that “in reality, it was Black who was heavy-handedly trying to force [her] to keep silent”, staging the conversation to make it sound as though she was demanding an extortionate payout.

“Guzel, $5mn is a lot of money,” says Black.

“It’s not about the money for me.”

“And yet you talk about $100mn, and then you say it’s not about money. Which one is it?”

“I think that is what would be fair.”

Black discusses some practical problems with making such a large payment. He grasps for information: “Where is this coming from?” 

She ignores the question. Then suddenly, instead of money, they are bargaining for time: “I don’t want to meet any more,” she says. “I’m just going to go to lawyers . . . I’m dying to talk to other people about it. I’m dying to talk to the press.”

“I would ask you, one, not to go to a lawyer, because lawyers take a third to a half,” Black says. “I’ll pay for your hotel. And I’ll also pay if you need some money for your airfare.”

They reconvened that Friday at Le Bernardin, the Michelin-starred seafood palace in midtown. Then, the following week at The Modern, overlooking the sculpture garden at MoMA, where Black was on the board. In September, they met in London. As the summer wore on, Black discussed Ganieva’s demands with a private investigator from Nardello & Co, and with Epstein. By the time they returned to the Four Seasons in October, an autumnal sun hung low in the sky.

Black was first to speak: “I would like very much to put this behind both of us. That said, I don’t think you have acted well.” He summarised the last few rounds of negotiation. “I had originally offered 12 years at a million a year. I then upped it to 12 years at a million two.” Now came the final offer. “I would extend that another three years,” he said. “So that is now 15 years at $100,000 a month, which is an $18mn total.” Black, who knew he was on tape, added: “In addition to that, right now you owe me about $1mn.” 

He paused for Ganieva’s murmured assent before promising to forgive the loan. “And then, you know, the whole world of visas and green cards and passports, it’s complicated,” he continued. Black promised to put Ganieva in possession of £2mn worth of UK government bonds which, under British immigration rules at the time, would have qualified her for a visa.

The monetary terms dealt with, Black now turned to surety. “The only thing that I ask for in return, in fact it’s part of the deal, is you signing a one-page release and confidentiality statement,” he said. “I want you to read it, obviously.” Black produced a piece of paper. “I need security that this has gone away, and it’s never coming back.”

Ganieva asked if she could look at the document with lawyers.

“Nope. You can read it carefully. But no, I don’t want . . . this stuff out there.” There would only be two copies. “One is kept by my lawyers, and one is kept by me.”

Ganieva read the document. “It says you’re going to give me $100k,” she said, referring to the monthly payments. “But for how long, it doesn’t say.”

“I don’t want the whole nature of the deal,” Black began — but this was the wrong track. “You have my promise,” he said, changing course, “that if you behave, I will live up to everything. I have always been a man of my word to you, and you know that. And if I don’t, you can do whatever you want.”

“But if I sign this, I cannot do anything I want.”

“You can still do it,” said Black. “You can say it was under duress. You can say you didn’t let me talk to a lawyer. You can say whatever you want, but I’m giving you a $21mn package. That’s for your protection. I need this for mine.”

She signed the document. They talked for a while about what they had once felt for one another. It was the middle of the lunchtime rush in the Four Seasons, and the brass rods of Richard Lippold’s sculpture hung above, like abstractions of weightless swords.


Ganieva’s monthly bank statements showed a payment from “E Trust”, with no further identification of the sender. But buying the kind of life she envisaged in the UK was less straightforward than it seemed. Before the end of 2015, she was texting Black for help with her visa. She also considered enrolling in business school. “[I] was wondering if you can write a recommendation for me,” she asked Black in another message. He never replied.

In 2017, Ganieva moved back to New York on a student visa, just as America began the most far-reaching social reckoning since the civil rights era. That year, a series of investigative news stories exposed Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual violence. What followed was the dark outpouring of experience that came to be known as #MeToo, and Weinstein took his place among dozens of abusive politicians, businessmen and celebrities who finally faced consequences.

Measured in dollars, a lawyer named Douglas Wigdor would be the undisputed legal leader of the #MeToo movement. Wigdor grew up in suburban Long Island and went to university in Missouri before moving to Washington DC to study law. After spending the early part of his career defending corporations from sexual harassment lawsuits, Wigdor began displaying the same distaste for hierarchy that drove Black. Wigdor set up his own firm in 2003, touting justice for people whose powerful abusers were considered untouchable by the criminal justice system. New York City had just passed its law allowing survivors to sue, and Wigdor has frequently invoked it, handling hundreds of complaints about the sexual misconduct of powerful men.

He speaks in a precise monotone, notably devoid of the soaring rhetoric of the crusading lawyer. “I’m not an ideologue,” Wigdor says. “I mean, there are some people who do what I do who not only fight these cases but then [make them their] mission in life . . . I see my role more as a trial lawyer.” A slight man with fair hair and ruddy cheeks, Wigdor, 55, doesn’t exactly look like a brawler. But his métier is payback. Unintimidated by the stature of his adversaries, he demands large payouts and takes his share.

Over the past 20 years, Wigdor has secured more than $1.5bn in compensation for clients, including some who were assaulted by Weinstein. His website features news coverage involving executives who have been accused of wrongdoing by Wigdor clients. Wigdor says he has never threatened an adversary with the prospect of bad press, but some defence lawyers view Wigdor’s media appearances as a weapon. “They put up all these hit pieces,” says one, who has not represented Black. “Any lawyer will say to you, ‘Listen, if you don’t want to settle with us, we’ll put [damaging details] in our suit.’ But in this case you know the lawyer saying that is notorious for going on CNN.”

One of Wigdor’s early clients was a housekeeper at a New York hotel who alleged that she had been raped by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the head of the IMF. Strauss-Kahn was arrested, only to be released when the district attorney concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. Wigdor filed a civil lawsuit and obtained a financial settlement. 

Public prosecutors enjoy wide discretion to choose which cases they pursue. At times, law enforcement officials have exercised their latitude poorly, proving too reluctant to file charges against powerful men. That is the reason why New York passed the law empowering survivors. But there was another reason, according to Wigdor. “When the prosecutor brings a case, they don’t represent the victim,” he says. “They represent the people of the state of New York. The victim is a witness, and prosecutors’ form of justice is very different than perhaps what the victim’s form of justice is. One form of justice is seeing a person be incarcerated for the crimes that he or she committed and another . . . is to make a person whole, monetarily, for the harm that’s been caused to him or her.”

The kind of accountability that Wigdor promotes is not a perfect substitute for criminal prosecution. The suits he files — or threatens to — do not put dangerous people in prison. And they are only viable against perpetrators of means. Many of Wigdor’s cases are invisible, ending in large payouts before a claim is ever filed in court. Others, like the lawsuit that Wigdor filed this month against music mogul Sean Combs, are only glimpsed in public. The plaintiff was Cassie, the R&B singer, who alleged that Combs had raped her, beaten her and blown up a romantic rival’s car. Combs denied the allegations. The day after Cassie’s suit was filed, Wigdor announced that she and Combs had resolved the claims “to their mutual satisfaction”.

In August 2018, Ganieva enrolled at Cardozo law school in New York. Her son was completing his education at a $40,000-a-year high school. From their apartment 53 storeys above the bustle of Columbus Circle, they could peek over neighbouring skyscrapers to the Hudson River. Their lifestyle depended on Ganieva’s silence. The Four Seasons deal prohibited her from telling anyone about her allegations against Black, the money he was paying her, or the fact that she had signed a non-disclosure agreement. With nine years of the NDA left to go, $11mn hung in the balance.

And yet, Ganieva wanted to speak out. In November 2019, she emailed Jodi Kantor, the New York Times reporter who first revealed payments Weinstein made to some of his accusers. “I think I can move forward only if I have a legal power to stop it at any time before it gets published,” Ganieva told Kantor, in an email cited in court filings. Later that month, she tried Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker and, the next year, the Miami Herald’s Julie K Brown, who had uncovered the sweetheart deal Florida prosecutors made with Epstein. None of those conversations seemed to gain traction.

At some point, she began discussing her case with America’s most prominent #MeToo lawyer. In 2020, months before he agreed to represent her, Wigdor discussed Ganieva with Matthew Goldstein, a reporter at The New York Times who was soon to reveal the extent of Black’s entanglement with Epstein. “Had good chat with Wigdor over the weekend,” Goldstein told Ganieva in a text. “Will update you tomorrow.” But that conversation, too, went cold. (Wigdor says the conversation followed an unsolicited approach by Goldstein.)

Attorney Douglas Wigdor speaks in court during the Strauss-Kahn vs Nafissatou Diallo trial at New York State Supreme Court in March 2012
Attorney Douglas Wigdor speaks in court during the Strauss-Kahn vs Nafissatou Diallo trial at New York State Supreme Court in March 2012 © Getty Images

Then, in March 2021, Ganieva posted on Twitter. Leon Black “could not understand me when I refused his sexual advances”, she wrote. “I was bullied, manipulated, threatened, and coerced. Similarly, under duress, I was forced to sign an NDA.” Black immediately recognised the threat to his $12bn fortune. On March 21, about four days after first learning of the posts, he resigned as Apollo chief. It was several months earlier than planned, and he relinquished the chairmanship he’d intended to keep.

Black quickly became a pariah beyond Wall Street. For years, he had given generously to attach his name to artistic institutions. There were calls for his alma mater, Dartmouth College, to change the name of the Black Family Visual Arts Center, which he had built for $48mn. More than 100 artists urged MoMA to cut ties. The chairmanship was coming up for renewal, but Black let it be known he wouldn’t seek to extend his term. 

The first story about Ganieva’s allegations to appear in a mainstream news outlet was published in the New York Post in April. For all the suspicions of Black’s lawyers, Wigdor says he had nothing to do with it. That month, Black cut off payments from the account that took care of Ganieva. “To be very clear,” his lawyers later wrote, “the ‘E’ in ‘E Trust’ stands for ‘Extortion’.”


In June 2021, Wigdor filed a civil complaint on Ganieva’s behalf. It contained more than 6,000 words that, according to a unanimous appeals court ruling later, should never have been included because they were scandalous and irrelevant to Ganieva’s legal claims. The stricken passages, which comprise about one-third of the document, include an account of a supposed visit to Epstein’s mansion in Florida, which Black’s lawyers say is contradicted by private jet logs. The complaint attracted widespread press coverage.

The parts of Ganieva’s lawsuit that survived excision seek monetary damages from Black for damaging her reputation by accusing her of extortion, and for acts of violence that he allegedly committed during their relationship. In one such incident, on July 6 2014, it claims Black “barged” into Ganieva’s apartment while she was unwell. The complaint describes the rape that allegedly followed in graphic detail.

Criminal cases usually follow police investigations, giving prosecutors access to a large amount of evidence before they decide whether to file charges. But Wigdor does not have the power to obtain search warrants. He has never spoken to Black about the allegations. So he had no way to learn about the text messages Black claims to have, which he says counter some of Ganieva’s allegations. 

One, according to court papers filed by Black’s lawyers, is dated July 6 and reads: “This is love. I need you.” Black says he replied by inquiring whether he could “come over and tuck you in at 10.30” and that Ganieva accepted, asking him to bring a bottle of wine. The next morning, Black says he received the following message: “Good morning. It was very nice to see you last night. I already feel better . . . I love you and thank you!” 

Someone who was sexually assaulted could send such messages. A prosecutor working for the state would have considered the texts that Black says he received, along with Ganieva’s report of what happened and other available evidence. Ganieva met with prosecutors in 2021 to lay out her allegations. At about the same time, Black’s longtime confidant Brad Karp, who chairs the prestigious Paul Weiss law firm, personally asked Cyrus Vance, then the Manhattan district attorney, to investigate Black’s extortion claims. But, so far, New York’s criminal justice system has declined to take up the case. 

Now it seems a jury may never be charged with deciding what happened between Black and Ganieva. A judge dismissed her case this year without considering whether her allegations were true, finding that the document she signed in the Four Seasons barred her from suing in the first place. Ganieva is appealing. Unless that ruling is overturned, neither she nor Black will have an opportunity to testify. The recordings Black secretly made will never be played in open court, and there will be no effort to establish whether the text messages are authentic. No witness will be asked to testify, under oath, to what either of them did or said on the day of the alleged rape. There will be no finding of fact that would either confirm Ganieva’s story or clear Black’s name.

In May 2022, New York’s governor signed the Adult Survivors Act, which suspended the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits relating to sexual misconduct for one year. Wigdor had been a vocal proponent of the new law, which made civil lawsuits available to many more survivors of abuse. The week after it came into effect, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of a woman who alleged she had been raped by Black in 2002 at Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse. Earlier this year, Wigdor filed another lawsuit on behalf of a Jane Doe who alleges that Epstein forced her to have sex with Black when she was 16.

Both legal battles are likely to be protracted. The allegations of the women have been widely reported, and Black has sought to cast doubt on their credibility. Wigdor has accused Black of trying to “humiliate and retaliate against [Doe] for her decision to speak out against his sexual abuse”. 

The juries that eventually convene to resolve the litigation involving Black will be asked to pass judgment, not only on the Wall Street tycoon’s past, but on an iconoclastic lawyer’s alternative path to justice. Earlier this year, Black filed a lawsuit accusing Wigdor of malicious prosecution of Ganieva’s civil claim, demanding that Wigdor compensate him for the loss of his business empire. 

Susan Estrich, a feminist legal scholar who advocated for reform of rape laws in the 1980s, has signed on to defend Black, whom she knew at Dartmouth. She believes that her college friend is innocent and that Wigdor has blown past the boundaries of legitimate advocacy and created a new injustice. “They’re plaintiff’s lawyers interested in making money as plaintiff’s lawyers,” says Estrich. “We shouldn’t pretend that this is the #MeToo movement helping powerless women who have no recourse for their legitimate rape complaints. This is about a very small subset of women who can go to a plaintiffs’ law firm and say, ‘Look, my target is a billionaire.’”


About two dozen people attended the final hearing in Ganieva’s civil action against Black, in a harshly lit room inside an Italianate office building in Tribeca. It was May 2023. Two years had elapsed since her last paycheck from Black. Those payments, worth more than $1mn a year, had been as big as any that a plaintiff could reasonably hope to secure through the civil courts. Yet she had given them all up. To cover her attorney’s fees, she agreed to pay Wigdor 38 per cent of any money she received through litigation, meaning she would need to win about $18mn just to get back to the position she had started from. “There is a possibility that you will recover nothing,” her engagement letter from Wigdor read.

Many of those present had puzzled over what compelled Ganieva to go public, seemingly against her own financial interest. One possibility is that, like many survivors of sexual violence, she felt empowered by #MeToo. Or Wigdor may have convinced her she could win a public victory as well as a financial one. An “important and very traumatic part of what happened to me is hidden from the public”, Ganieva wrote in an email to the FT. “And it has to do with Epstein and how I was forced to sign [an] NDA. I receive daily threats, and only yesterday people came to my apartment under false pretences and threatened me in front of my son. However, I will share what happened to me eventually because [the] public does deserve to know.” 

Black suggested it was futile to search for an explanation in Ganieva’s motives. In a lawsuit filed last year, he alleged Wigdor was secretly working for Josh Harris, his former Apollo apprentice, to engineer his downfall, with Ganieva as a stooge. “Like Shakespeare’s Iago,” the lawsuit claimed, Harris had “turned his wrath on his mentor”.

People who have worked in proximity to Apollo did not consider Black’s theory inherently ridiculous. But he lacked evidence. In the legal scrum, it emerged that a lieutenant of Harris’s had written a presentation about how to pursue litigation against Black. It did not suggest hiring Wigdor, but another law firm, Quinn Emanuel. Even harder to square with Black’s theory, Quinn ended up on the opposite side of the case, representing the billionaire. Ganieva and Harris have denied having anything to do with one another. Last year, a federal judge threw out Black’s lawsuit.

The people filing into the courtroom this May seemed to know each other. Lawyers arrived in groups, trading gossip in hushed murmurs, occasionally breaking into laughter. Many of them will continue to be involved in the ongoing battles between Black and Wigdor, both of whom now claim they are fighting for their good name. New York’s legal system had, in effect, transmuted one woman’s allegations of sexual violence into a noisy argument over the reputations of two men.

Only one person, a well-dressed woman in her early forties, seemed completely alone. She nodded in frosty recognition at the Wigdor lawyers who had taken her down this costly path. Now they were here to tell the judge that relations with their client had broken down.

“Essentially, you fired them?” asked the judge.

“Yes,” said Ganieva.

He wanted to know who would represent her from now on.

“I mean, I would love to find somebody. I don’t know how realistic it is.”

She hesitated, then seemed to come to terms with a more likely outcome. “I’m first to admit, I am not a licensed lawyer,” Ganieva said. “But, you know, I can try.” 

Mark Vandevelde is the FT’s US private capital correspondent

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