Bill Gates discussed his marriage to Melinda French Gates, his past relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, and Microsoft’s alleged toxic workplace culture in his first public appearance since his divorce was finalized earlier this week.
Gates appeared in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday to discuss his work in the fight against COVID-19. But the billionaire philanthropist first responded to questions regarding his personal relationships.
On Monday, Gates and his former wife, Melinda French Gates, officially divorced, ending their 27-year marriage, which he called “a very sad milestone.”
“Melinda’s a great person, and that partnership that we had coming to an end is a source of great personal sadness,” Gates told Cooper. “We are communicating and working at the foundation so that partnership we’re going to try and continue.”
The Gates Foundation announced in early July that the former couple would enter a two-year trial period to see if they can continue to work together. If they opt not to continue, Melinda Gates will resign as co-chair of the foundation, leaving Bill Gates with full stewardship.
“We always enjoyed our work together,” Gates said Wednesday. “The two of us can go out and work with leaders and help build the organization, so that would be definitely the best thing for the foundation.”
In the interview, Gates also addressed his former wife’s concerns about his ties to the late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, with whom he said he had “several dinners.”
“I had several dinners with him, hoping what he said about getting billions of philanthropy for global health through contacts that he had might emerge,” Gates said during the CNN interview. “When it looked like that wasn’t a real thing, that relationship ended.”
He added: “But it was a huge mistake to spend time with him, to give him the credibility. There were lots of others in the same situation, but I made a mistake.”
The Microsoft co-founder was also asked about reports of several women who worked for his company and the Gates Foundation accusing him of creating an uncomfortable workplace environment.
In 2006, Gates allegedly asked a female Microsoft employee out to dinner, and said, “If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened,” according to The New York Times. The Times also reported that Gates asked a woman who worked for the Gates Foundation to dinner at a cocktail party sometime between 2007 and 2008.
In late 2019, Microsoft board members opened an investigation into Gates after an employee said she had a sexual relationship with him for years. A representative for Gates acknowledged “there was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably.”
Cooper also noted French Gates was reportedly unhappy with the way Gates handled a sexual harassment probe into his longtime wealth manager, Michael Larson – pushing for an independent investigation after Gates attempted to settle the case confidentially.
When asked by Cooper if he had regrets, Gates said: “Well, certainly I think everyone does, but it’s a time of reflection, and at this point, I need to go forward.”
“My work is very important to me,” he continued. “Within the family, we’ll heal as best we can and learn from what’s happened.”
Occasionally, Cohen said the spouses of very wealthy people don’t ask for as much money as they could and instead settle for much less. He added that if he thinks a client is about to do a deal he thinks is “egregiously bad,” he’ll advise them to not to take it.
“I might push them a little bit and try to get them to see the other side of it,” he said. “Remember: for the unmoneyed spouse, it’s likely to be the largest business deal that they’ll ever do in their life. And they really need to think about it, because they may not have a second opportunity.”
Some clients will find a happy medium between the extremes of accepting too little or demanding too much of their spouse, and those are the cases Cohen says he resolves fairly easily out of court.
If Cohen were to represent the wife of a man who’s worth $500 million, he said it wouldn’t be unusual for that client to ask him to win a settlement closer to $100 million or $115 million, rather than a full $250 million. In such a case, Cohen said he could simply call up the lawyer representing the hypothetical husband – it’s a small number of elite divorce lawyers handling these cases, and they all know each other.
“You’ll never get that deal again,” Cohen said. “Because if we go to court and we have to fight about that, you know what the end result is going to be, because I know what the end result is going to be, and you’re a smart guy.”
Though the famed Manhattan lawyer has a long reputation for being “mean” and a “killer,” Cohen said people would be surprised by how fair he tries to be. He said he often has to remind his clients that what they consider fair may be very different from what their spouse considers fair.
“One of my jobs is not only to do well for my client, but I think one of my jobs is also to make it possible that both parties at the end of the day feel reasonably good about the resolution,” he said. “Especially if there are children involved.”
Cohen considers himself something of an expert at determining what’s a square deal: He’s known for winning the first major equitable-distribution case in New York in 1985, Karp v. Karp, after the state’s divorce laws required marital assets to be split “equitably” – which means the assets must be distributed fairly, but not necessarily 50/50.
“To be candid, I’d like my client to come out a little better than ‘reasonably fair,’ but nevertheless, I want both people to walk away and say, ‘I did okay,'” Cohen said.
But he acknowledged that he has to get “clever” at times when fairness doesn’t cut it. When neither side can agree on the amount of money that should be paid to or received by a given spouse, Cohen often will propose taking that sum and creating a trust for the couple’s children.
“You’re doing something you’re likely to do anyway, which is leave money to your kids,” he said. “It’s a way to sort of get around the delta that we sometimes run into.”
Rock told Insider in an interview that Cohen was a capable, intelligent, and realistic lawyer who helped the comedian see the bigger picture: That most of his divorce had already been resolved, and the most contentious parts composed a tiny fraction of what was at stake.
“Put it this way. People get divorced. People fight. Things take sometimes years. At the end of the day, you’re only talking 4%, one way or the other,” Rock said. “[Cohen] said that to me. I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ And that put it in perspective.”
Cohen told Insider his 4% rule holds up in most divorces he handles. He’s one of the most prominent divorce lawyers in the country, and has represented a number of other high-profile clients, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the actors Uma Thurman and James Gandolfini, and both of Donald Trump’s ex-wives, Ivana Trump and Marla Maples.
“At the end of the day, the differences are usually a small percentage. Both with respect to money, and with respect to custody issues,” he said.
Rock’s turbulent divorce was highly publicized, and he’s since opened up about his flaws as a husband – in particular, his numerous infidelities.
But he said Cohen remained cool-headed throughout the process, particularly when it came to disputes over child custody.
“I had some issues,” Rock said. “It’s like, when you’re a guy, some people don’t even think you want to see your kids. [Cohen] was very understanding about all of that.”
“He got me through a very tough time in my life,” Rock added.
When a celebrity or a billionaire sits down for the first time with Manhattan’s most infamous divorce attorney, the conversation gets deep. Quickly.
Robert Stephan Cohen always asks the potential new client about sex – namely, whether they’re still having it – as well as how they made their money and why their marriage is failing. He’s brutally honest about his thoughts, and it’s not unusual for the conversation to end with Cohen talking the person out of a divorce entirely.
“I find that if people are still able to be happily married and be intimate, I think there’s something to save,” Cohen said.
Yet in person, Cohen is warm and thoughtful. In a recent interview with Insider from his offices on the 32nd floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, the 82-year-old attorney frequently cracked jokes and asked questions of his own.
It’s a high-stakes moment for Cohen: He’s representing Melinda Gates in her split from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Their divorce settlement could very well become the largest in history.
Bill Gates is currently the fourth-richest person in the world and worth an estimated $126 billion, according to Forbes. It’s unclear whether the couple has a prenuptial agreement – Cohen declined to comment on the Gates’ divorce specifically – but the divorce petition asked that their assets be divided in accordance with a separation contract, the details of which remain a mystery.
Cohen spoke with Insider broadly about the complexities of a billionaire’s divorce, and how America’s elite divide their astronomical wealth when their marriages crumble.
“The wealth that exists in the United States is staggering. Even to me,” Cohen said. “Remember: For the person who doesn’t have the money, it’s likely to be the largest business deal that they’ll ever do in their life.”
Code names and 2 a.m. phone calls
Cohen said each of his cases involving a high-net-worth client starts off the same way: with an initial meeting.
Many of the issues at stake for a billionaire or movie star are the same ones facing the average American couple – infidelity, conflict, and money troubles. Cohen said he’ll spend about 90 minutes in each intake meeting delving into “the psychology of how to deal with the divorce.”
Cohen has to ask his wealthy clients whether there are children involved, whether custody disputes will arise, how the client made their money, when they started to make their money, and why their marriage broke down.
“Divorce lawyers are like doctors in a weird way,” the comedian Chris Rock told Insider. Cohen represented Rock in 2016, during his highly-publicized divorce from his wife of 19 years.
“They need to have a good bedside manner. And Bob has a very good, soothing manner. Gets you through, lets you see the big picture,” Rock said. “He explains the realities of the situation.”
When a client decides to retain him, Cohen said that’s when he and his team dig in for the long haul. They start pulling in financial statements and reviewing the details of their client’s assets. He’s cultivated a bevy of experts in securities, real estate, and banking to help with his biggest cases over the years. His firm, Cohen Clair Lans Greifer Thorpe & Rottenstreich LLP, has three lawyers on staff who are also certified public accountants and often help his team with complex tax or securities laws.
“In the olden days, we dealt with spreadsheets and accountants and it took months sometimes to put together a financial statement for a wealthy client,” he said. Today, it can be as simple as making a single phone call or having an elite client “press a button” and deliver him a relatively accurate financial statement.
With celebrities like Rock, Cohen has to strategize around the client’s privacy protections.
“We have more code names for our clients in this firm than probably a lot of other firms who do these things, because we have to generally hide and keep secret the fact that we’re representing somebody before it becomes public,” he said.
Cohen said as soon as he receives a call from a celebrity, he comes up with a code word – a previous client was “watermelon” – to be used only by him and the other lawyers working on the case. The rest of his firm, and even his wife, usually won’t know what the code word stands for.
The attorney-client relationship is also remarkably close, Cohen said, no matter how famous the client is, or how many managers or assistants try to intervene. All clients get his personal cellphone number, with the caveat that they use it responsibly.
Cohen said a celebrity client once phoned him in the middle of the night, exclaiming, “Bob, I need to talk to you.”
When Cohen noted that it was 2 a.m., she responded, “Well, it’s only 11 o’clock in LA.”
‘He’s not a shark’
Celebrity divorce attorneys are a small and exclusive bunch. Many of Cohen’s toughest adversaries are also his friends – and despite frequently facing off with him in the courtroom, they sing his praises outside of it.
To succeed in divorce cases where millions of dollars are at stake, attorneys like Cohen have to know so much more than alimony laws, according to David Saxe, a retired New York Supreme Court justice.
“To be a good lawyer in that context, you have to know a lot more than what the divorce law says,” Saxe told Insider. “You have to understand corporate law, you have to understand estate law, you have to understand tax law, partnership law, commercial law.”
“You have to be a thoroughly well-rounded business lawyer to represent those clients properly in a divorce, and that’s what Bob Cohen does,” he continued. “That’s his specialty.”
Saxe, who as a justice frequently oversaw divorces where Cohen represented one of the parties, said Cohen was “a gentleman to his adversaries” despite his formidable reputation. He never had to admonish Cohen in court, nor did he ever catch Cohen trying to take advantage of another lawyer.
“They used to call matrimonial lawyers ‘sharks,'” Saxe said. “He’s not a shark. He always kept on the high road, and I think that won him the plaudits of the other judges … as well as his colleagues.”
Rock said Cohen was a calm, bracing presence during a miserable period in his life. The comedian has since been candid over his faults and infidelities during his marriage, and his famously bitter divorce involved rumored disputes over child custody.
“I had some issues,” Rock acknowledged. “It’s like, when you’re a guy, some people don’t even think you want to see your kids. He was very understanding about all of that.”
Rock said one piece of wisdom from Cohen helped him through the worst of a two-year legal battle: The harshest disagreements make up only a tiny percentage of what’s at stake in a divorce.
“Put it this way. People get divorced. People fight. Things take sometimes years. At the end of the day, you’re only talking 4%, one way or the other,” Rock said. “[Cohen] said that to me. I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ And that put it in perspective.”
“No one – not in America, anyway – gets killed in a divorce. You know what I mean?” Rock continued. “There’s no lawyer that ever got somebody so much more than they were supposed to get, or so much less. It just doesn’t exist in this country.”
From Coney Island to midtown Manhattan
Cohen was raised in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the son of a taxi driver father and a homemaker mother.
Initially keen on dentistry at Alfred University in western New York, Cohen took a course on constitutional law in his junior year, became hooked, and decided to become a lawyer instead.
Cohen learned about ambition and wealth relatively early in his career, under the wing of Roy Cohn, the notoriously ruthless prosecutor and right-hand man of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“I will say that my politics were quite different than his,” Cohen said. “But he was regarded as a brilliant lawyer. Other issues surround him, but he was nevertheless a brilliant lawyer.”
Beyond his legal prowess, Cohn taught Cohen about the finer things in life, taking him on rides in private airplanes and showing him office suites on Park Avenue.
“I got to see things that I never saw, and I got a taste for it,” Cohen said. “Ambition is very much part of not only a successful lawyer, but being successful at anything you want to do. You’ve got to want to achieve the highest level that you can.”
Though Cohen started out as a corporate lawyer, his name became inextricably linked with divorce law when he represented the billionaire private equity giant Henry Kravis in a post-matrimonial case in the 1990s.
“It was not a divorce case, but it sort of smelled a little like a divorce case,” Cohen said. “My name was in the newspaper attached to this lawsuit that I had won; we got the case dismissed and everybody started calling me. They thought I was some matrimonial lawyer.”
He took on a few matrimonial cases, then “got good and kept getting better,” he said. Eventually, word-of-mouth recommendations among the Hollywood and Wall Street elite led him to develop a lucrative matrimonial boutique firm and a renowned teaching career. His “Anatomy of a Divorce” class at the University of Pennsylvania Law School has been popular among students for years, according to Eleanor Barrett, the school’s associate dean.
The types of divorces that Cohen specializes in are known as “business divorces,” Saxe said. They involve absurdly wealthy clients – often hedge fund managers, corporate moguls, or real estate developers – who come with sprawling assets in all manner of hiding places.
Whether a divorce lawyer is representing the moneyed or less-moneyed spouse, they have to be savvy enough to understand how to approach that level of wealth, Saxe said.
“The divorce comes right in the middle of this financial empire, and Bob would have to navigate that,” he said.
“Those people could probably retain any lawyer in the world,” Saxe said. “They want somebody who is highly professional, that is discreet … and who will listen carefully and give good advice. And he can do all of those things.”
Fewer Americans are getting divorced – and fewer are getting married
The twilight years of Cohen’s career have arrived as both marriage and divorce rates plummet in the United States.
Census data shows divorce rates have steeply decreased in the last decade. At the same time, experts say younger generations are marrying later in life (or, increasingly, not at all), and waiting until after they reach major milestones like graduating, establishing their careers, or buying homes.
Cohen said he was aware of the trends, but isn’t losing sleep over it.
“I’m not worrying about it, nor does anybody in my firm,” he said. “Look, marriage is an institution and it’s never going to go away. There’s a constitutional right in our country to be married. There are Supreme Court of the United States cases dealing with the right to marriage. I have a bunch of kids; all of them are married.”
Cohen said his team handles roughly 50 prenups per year, as well as a number of postnuptial agreements. He also confirmed that the so-called gray divorce trend the Gates’ divorce has highlighted is one he sees in his practice, so there’s plenty of business for him.
Cohen’s clients, much like himself, are working longer and living longer. In some cases, they’re divorcing later.
“When you were 60 in the olden days, you stopped working, you were retired, you were on a pension. Maybe if you were lucky, you got a small place in a warm climate,” he said. “It’s way different now – at 60, you’re vital, you’re working, and your career is ahead of you, not behind you.”
Even when a divorce case he’s working on turns nasty, Cohen said he sleeps very well at night.
“There’s the bad part, the destruction of a marriage. But the other side of this is we start people out and we give them a new life,” he said. “It sort of makes what I do a lot nicer sometimes – when I smile and think about the gift that we give to people.”
Ten former employees of Cascade Investment told the outlet that money manager Michael Larson showed coworkers photos of naked women, publicly judged female colleagues based on their attractiveness in front of male employees, and fostered a “culture of fear” at the firm tasked with growing the Gates’ wealth.
When a former employee, Stacy Ybarra, told Larson she planned to leave Cascade for another company, Larson shorted that company’s stock and told her he had done so to spite her, three people told The Times.
Sources told the outlet that Larson would also call employees “stupid” and dub their work to be “garbage.”
In a statement to the NYT, Larson said, “Years ago, earlier in my career, I used harsh language that I would not use today. I regret this greatly but have done a lot of work to change.”
Two sources told the Times that Larson also made a racist comment to Ybarra, who is Black. After she told him she had voted before coming to work on Election Day one November, Larson said “but you live in the ghetto, and everybody knows that Black people don’t vote,” according to the report.
Larson, who could not be reached by Insider, denied making the remark and “some but not all” of the allegations of misconduct, according to The Times. Insider also reached out to a spokesperson for Larson, Chris Giglio, for additional comment on the report.
“During his tenure, Mr. Larson has managed over 380 people, and there have been fewer than five complaints related to him in total,” a spokesperson for Larson told the Times.
“Any complaint was investigated and treated seriously and fully examined, and none merited Mr. Larson’s dismissal,” the spokesperson added, per the Times.
Cascade opened an internal investigation into the incident, and Gates and French Gates spoke to Ybarra as part of it, sources told The Times.
Larson also showed male colleagues pictures of naked women and compared them to the company’s HR executive, according to the report, and in another incident asked a female employee if she would strip if paid a certain amount. Larson denied the events took place to The Times.
The Times also reported Larson was accused of exposing himself to a woman who managed a bike shop that was majority-owned by a Cascade-backed company. The woman hired a lawyer in 2017 and wrote a letter to Gates and French Gates threatening to sue the couple if Larson’s alleged advances didn’t stop. He told her he wanted to have sex with her as well as another woman, according to a source who read the letter and spoke to the NYT.
The NYT reported the sexual harassment allegation last week, but the Wednesday report sheds more light on the alleged incident.
Gates’ solution was to pay the manager in a settlement, while French Gates suggested conducting an external review of the matter and of the work culture at Cascade, sources told The Times in a previous report.
An investigation by a law firm concluded the accusation couldn’t be substantiated, and Larson returned to work at Cascade after a leave of absence. A spokesperson for Larson told the Times that Larson had “wanted to contest the allegations throughout the investigation.”
A Gates spokesperson did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Cascade Investment was created to manage the Gates’ fortune as well as the Gates Foundation endowment. The Wall Street Journal published a profile on Larson in 2014, detailing how his job was to “make Bill Gates richer.”
Bill Gates was seen wearing a wedding band on his left ring finger during a virtual event on Wednesday, just two weeks after he and his wife Melinda French Gates announced their divorce.
As the New York Post first reported, Gates spoke at the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Forum on Economic Recovery on Wednesday, his first public appearance since the couple announced their divorce. In the video, the ring can be spotted on his finger.
A spokesperson for Gates did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Bill Gates has transferred $850 million more in shares to Melinda French Gates amid the couple’s divorce, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.
The Microsoft co-founder transferred 2.25 million shares of equipment manufacturer Deere, brand name John Deere, to French Gates through his investment firm, Cascade Investment LLC, on Thursday, according to a securities filing seen by the Journal.
The reported Deere transfer equates to around 7% of Gates’s stake in the company.
Gates and Cascade Investment still owned nearly 29.3 million shares – 9.3% of the company – after the $850 million transfer to French Gates, the security filings said, per the Journal.
Cascade Investment didn’t immediately reply to Insider’s request for comment. The holding company also declined to comment beyond the filings to the Journal.
Insider reported on May 7 that three stocks worth a combined $3 billion were transferred to French Gates after the couple’s divorce announcement. These stocks included 2.9 million shares of automotive retailer AutoNation, 14.1 million shares of Canadian National Railway, and 293.5 million shares of media company Grupo Televisa.
Other stocks that French Gates could receive from Cascade Investment include Republic Services and Ecolab, which are heavily owned positions at the holding company.
This is not the first time Jennifer has shared her thoughts on her family on Instagram.
Shortly after the divorce announcement, the 25-year-old posted another story that read: “It’s been a challenging stretch of time for our whole family. I’m still learning how to best support my own process and emotions as well as my family members at this time and am grateful for the space to do so.”
The couple, who have been married for 27 years and have three children, announced on May 3 that they were going to split up.
The 65-year-old billionaire has been laying low in his multi million-dollar house at The Vintage Club in Indian Wells for a few months, according to the source.
“Bill clearly saw this divorce coming for a long time because he’s been there for around three months,” the source told Page Six, part of the New York Post.
The Microsoft founder was spotted at the luxury golf and country club with his 25-year-old daughter Jennifer Gates and her partner, Nayel Nassar, an Egyptian millionaire and show jumper, according to the source.
“It is the perfect place for Bill to hide out from anyone who wants to question him about his divorce or his alleged ties to Epstein,” the source said.
Gates bought a huge six-bed mansion at The Vintage Club for $12.5 million in 1990, according to a Forbes report.
On its website, the club describes itself as “one of the United States’ most prestigious and ultra-exclusive private country club communities.”
The club, which costs $250,000 to join, is a members-only country club where high-profile people such as businessmen Charles Koch, Philip Anshultz, and Dennis Washington go to enjoy luxury properties and play golf. The club has two championship golf courses, a spa, restaurants, and tennis courts.
The Vintage Club’s current real-estate listings range from $755,000 for a Hacienda-style cottage to upwards of $17 million for a custom home.
Melinda Gates has been meeting with divorce lawyers for years before deciding to split up from Bill Gates, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The two have been married for 27 years and announced on May 3 that their union would come to an end.
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” a joint statement posted to Twitter said. “Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.”
The decision rocked the philanthropic and tech communities but was a long time coming, according to the Journal.
Melinda has been in conversation with divorce lawyers since 2019 before finally filing for divorce, the Journal reported.
According to the outlet, the couple met with Epstein in New York City at his Upper East Side mansion in September 2013. Sources told the Daily Beast that soon after the meeting, Melinda told friends of her discomfort during the encounter. Several people close to the couple reportedly said she was “furious” over her husband’s relationship with Epstein.
After the New York Times reported Bill’s meeting with Epstein in October 2019, Melinda called her advisers multiple times, documents reviewed by the Journal say.
The two said in their joint Twitter statement that they planned to continue to work together on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We continue to share a belief in that mission,” they said.
Insider’s Erin Snodgrass contributed to this report.