USA

Airbnb reportedly paid tourist $7M after rape in Midtown rental

Airbnb paid an Australian tourist $7 million in hush money after she was allegedly raped at knifepoint in a Manhattan rental by an assailant who somehow had a copy of the apartment’s keys, according to a new bombshell report.

The alleged rape occurred early on New Years’ Day in 2016 after the unnamed 29-year-old woman and several friends rented a first-floor apartment on West 37th Street, a few blocks south of Times Square, according to a Bloomberg report published Tuesday. 

The guests allegedly picked up their keys from a nearby bodega earlier that night without showing identification, then went out to a New Years’ Eve party. 

When the victim returned from a bar without her friends shortly after midnight, the suspect, 24-year-old Junior Lee, was hiding in the bathroom, Bloomberg reported. He pointed a kitchen knife at her, grabbed her and raped her, according to the outlet. 

When police captured Lee later that night, they allegedly found a set of keys to the apartment in his bag, alongside a knife and one of the woman’s earrings.

He was charged with predatory sexual assault and could face up to life in prison, according to the report. Lee pled not guilty and remains in custody. 

The Legal Aid Society, which Bloomberg said is representing Lee, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. 

Chris Lehane, head of Global Policy And Communications For AirBnB was reportedly worried about AirBnB's reputation and that the victim would file a lawsuit.
Andrew Burton/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Hours after the alleged assault, “safety agents” from Airbnb swooped in, putting the woman up in a hotel, flying her mother in from Australia and offering to pay any health or counseling costs, according to Bloomberg. 

Chris Lehane, a former political consultant who is now working as Airbnb’s head of global policy and communications, was reportedly afraid that the incident would be used to help run Airbnb out of New York during the vacation company’s fiery battle with regulators.

It’s unclear how Lee allegedly got a key to the apartment, but Lehane and others at Airbnb were worried that the tourist would bring a lawsuit against the company over its key policy — which does not require hosts to use keypad locks that change codes between guests, or disclose who else has a copy of the key, for example. 

Brian Chesky is the CEO and co-founder of Airbnb.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The woman’s lawyer, Jim Kirk at the Kirk Firm, negotiated a $7 million settlement two years after the alleged assault that prevents her from blaming or suing Airbnb or the apartment’s host, according to Bloomberg. 

Airbnb spends about $50 million on payouts to guests for legal settlements and damage to homes each year, according to the report. 

Airbnb, Lehane and Kirk did not immediately reply to requests for comment. 

The previously unreported incident was revealed as part of a broader investigation into Airbnb’s “internal safety team,” which is responsible for cleaning up the company’s worst crises. 

Former Airbnb safety agents described many other shocking incidents to Bloomberg, including hosts who discovered dismembered human remains in their properties or bloodstains. 

Some agents said they also had to console guests who had to run from secluded cabins and hide in wardrobes after being assaulted by hosts, according to the report. 

In another incident, a host reportedly found an Airbnb guest naked in bed with his seven-year-old daughter. 

Until 2017, every person who signed an agreement with Airbnb over incidents like these was reportedly required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, meaning that many other harrowing stories may have gone unreported. 

After the #MeToo movement exposed how such agreements can be used to protect abusive companies, Airbnb replaced the non-disclosure agreement with a clause saying that “recipients can’t discuss the terms of their settlement or imply that it’s an admission of wrongdoing.”

Airbnb also employed high-profile political operatives to help negotiate the potential publicity nightmare of such incidents.

In addition to hiring Lehane, who worked as a spokesperson for the Clinton White House, the company brought on Nick Shapiro, a National Security Council advisor to President Barack Obama and deputy chief of staff at the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Airbnb reportedly hired Nick Shapiro help negotiate the potential publicity nightmares.
AP/Charles Dharapak

“This brought me back to feelings of confronting truly horrific matters at Langley and in the situation room at the White House,” Shapiro, who helped handle the Midtown rape case, told Bloomberg. 

In May 2020, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky reportedly cried on a video call as he announced he was laying-off 25 percent of the company’s workers — including 25 of the company’s most experienced safety agents. 

He later partially reversed the decision and temporarily hired back 15 of the workers on time-and-a-half pay, according to Bloomberg.

Airbnb, which went public in December in a blockbuster IPO valuing the company at more than $109 billion, recently made a light-on-details announcement that it is working with rental company Vrbo to crack-down on “party houses.” 

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