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Bill Gates' reputation could be clouded by reports about his personal life

The co-founder of Microsoft faces renewed scrutiny over allegations about his behavior and social ties, potentially threatening his public image.
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In the last decade, Bill Gates cultivated a straightforward public image.

He earned a reputation as a visionary global philanthropist. He drew wide attention as a self-styled expert on Covid-19. He endeared himself to self-proclaimed nerds as they ascended in popular culture, even making a cameo appearance on the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."

But in the wake of the announcement that Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and his wife, Melinda French Gates, plan to divorce after 27 years of marriage, a series of news reports have complicated his celebrity persona and raised questions about his personal life.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, reported Sunday that Gates left the Microsoft board last year during an investigation into a romantic relationship with a female company employee that was deemed inappropriate.

In a statement, a Microsoft spokesperson said that in 2019 the company was made aware of a concern that Gates "sought to initiate an intimate relationship with a company employee in the year 2000."

Gates' spokesperson confirmed that "there was an affair almost 20 years ago which ended amicably."

"Bill's decision to transition off the board was in no way related to this matter," the spokesperson said. (Gates said last year that he was stepping down from the board "to dedicate more time to philanthropic priorities.")

The New York Times, citing people with direct knowledge of Gates' behavior, reported Sunday that he pursued women who worked for him at Microsoft and at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, creating what were described as uncomfortable work environments.

NBC News has not independently confirmed that report, and a spokesperson for Gates said in part that "the claim of mistreatment of employees is also false."

The Journal and The Times have both reported that French Gates was uncomfortable with her husband's ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — a friendship that was reported to have begun in 2011, three years after Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from a minor.

However, a spokesperson for Gates said he "had absolutely no business partnership or personal friendship with Epstein," adding, "Gates never socialized with Epstein or attended parties with him."

The reports about Gates' personal life threaten to overshadow his carefully crafted image as a global do-gooder who, in an era of yawning economic inequality, harnessed his immense fortune (a net worth of about $130 billion, according to Forbes) for ambitious charitable projects and scientific research.

The wider culture, shaped in part by the #MeToo movement and national attention on gender and the workplace, is reckoning with the reputations of influential people across the arts, politics, business and other industries.

New questions about Gates' connections to Epstein — the reason French Gates was meeting with divorce attorneys as early as 2019, according to The Journal — could put Gates' private life under particularly intense examination.

In the last 20 years, as much of the American public continued to lose faith in traditional institutions, Gates appeared to gain more authority, helping to lead the fight against malaria and pushing for scientific research around the world.

Gates, along with French Gates and the U2 rocker Bono, were named Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" in 2005 in honor of their philanthropic activities. The magazine labeled the trio "The Good Samaritans."

Gates, who warned for years about the possibility of a global disease outbreak, recently emerged as a widely heard voice as the world confronted the scourge of Covid-19, speaking frequently about U.S. testing capabilities and offering predictions about the course of the pandemic.

"The U.S. would not take the issue of global vaccine equity as seriously if it weren't for Bill Gates, because, through media appearances, he was bringing attention to global cooperation," said Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician in Washington and a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

"He speaks in a voice of authority for United States health professionals," said Patel, who worked in the Obama administration.

And yet Gates' professional conduct at Microsoft was not without criticism. In the late 1990s, Gates was faulted for the company's aggressive tactics, including maneuvers that some considered anticompetitive. The saga culminated in a notable antitrust legal case in 2001.

He was also said to have an occasionally combative management style. In a 1997 article for Time magazine titled "In Search of the Real Bill Gates," the writer Walter Isaacson reported that one of Gates' favorite phrases inside the company was "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

Gates has long been linked in public consciousness with Apple impresario Steve Jobs. Gates and Jobs, the so-called "Pirates of Silicon Valley," revolutionized the personal computing industry — but Jobs' decidedly complicated personal life usually drew more significant attention.