Avenatti Intrigue Dominates at Hearing on Cult-Like NXIVM

Clare Bronfman, left, leaves federal court in Brooklyn on July 24, 2018. An heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, Bronfman and three other people were arrested earlier that day in connection with the investigation of a self-improvement organization accused of branding some of its female followers and forcing them into unwanted sex. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – At a dramatic hearing in the cult-like case ensnaring Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, it was confirmed Wednesday that Michael Avenatti met with the government on Bronfman’s behalf just days before the lawyer himself was charged with trying to extort $20 million from Nike.

Mark Geragos, a lawyer hired earlier this month by Bronfman, said this afternoon that he was also at the meeting with Avenatti. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lesko confirmed this as well.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ordered today’s hearing following twin criminal complaints filed Monday against Avenatti in New York and California. Geragos is said to be the unnamed co-conspirator described in the charges, and Garaufis ordered Bronfman, co-defendant Keith Raniere and all of their attorneys to appear in court this afternoon.

Before his arrest, Raniere was the leader of NXIVM (pronounced nexium), a purported self-help group that prosecutors say was actually a pyramid scheme with a secret sex-slavery ring known as DOS.

While Bronfman faces charges of conspiracy and identity theft, as well as violations of federal anti-racketeering law, Raniere faces a sweeping set of charges including sex trafficking and child pornography.

In today’s proceedings, known as a curcio hearing, Garaufis tried early on to get to the bottom of whether the competing interests of the attorneys has created a conflict of interest.

“Based on your review of the government’s letter, are you aware that according to attorney Mark Agnifilo, the individual referred to in the complaint as CC-1 is your attorney, Mark Geragos?” Garaufis asked Bronfman.

The letter Garaufis described was filed earlier this week under seal. Agnifilo represents Raniere in the NXIVM case. 

Bronfman did not answer Garaufis’ question, but her curcio counsel, Donna Newman, said the allegations against Geragos were based on hearsay.

Garaufis next asked Bronfman to names the attorneys she had retained.

“Did she retain Mr. Avenatti to represent her in this case, yes or no?” he eventually asked Newman and Bronfman’s attorney, Kathleen Cassidy.

“In this specific case?” Newman asked.

“Your honor, this is exactly what we had requested the sealing for,” Cassidy chimed in. Bronfman’s attorneys had attempted to seal the courtroom before the hearing, but Garaufis denied the motion. Multiple reporters had stood up to object to the proposed sealing. Bronfman has already had a curcio hearing over her appointment of Geragos, because his daughter, Teny, works on Raniere’s defense team.

Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman leaves Brooklyn federal court with her lawyer, Mark Geragos, after she received medical attention Wednesday while in court. Bronfman is a member of NXIVM, an organization whose leader has been charged with sex trafficking. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The parties went to a sidebar, which Bronfman joined, seated while the lawyers and judge stood around her. The sidebar is sealed in the court transcript.

As the sidebar broke into a 5-minute recess, the hearing was cut short when Bronfman appeared to have a medical episode. Raniere, who was supposed to have a curcio hearing immediately following Bronfman’s, was taken out of the room.

On the way back to her chair, Bronfman appeared to stumble and sway. An attorney caught her, grasping Bronfman under her armpits, and helped her sit down. Bronfman appeared to have lost weight since her first court appearance in July 2018, and her face was a ghastly yellowish white.

Geragos told the judge later that Bronfman had blacked out for 45 seconds to a minute.

Two paramedics and four firefighters who entered the courtroom with a stretcher paramedics ultimately wheeled Bronfman into a nearby conference room. Bronfman and her lawyers remained in the room after the paramedics left with the stretcher at about 5 p.m., later leaving the courthouse on foot. Her curcio hearing is rescheduled for tomorrow at 2 p.m., and Raniere’s for Friday at 3 p.m.

Prosecutors say a trust to which Bronfman contributes is also paying legal bills for her co-defendants, including Raniere, raising conflict-of-interest concerns. Wednesday’s curcio hearings were to be the eighth and ninth in the case, Garaufis said.

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