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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Avenatti Out in NXIVM Cult Case, Seagram’s Heiress Says

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - Returning to the courtroom where she collapsed a day earlier, the heiress charged in the NXIVM cult case told a federal judge Thursday she wants to be represented by a celebrity lawyer linked to Michael Avenatti.

Clare Bronfman, the youngest daughter of the Seagram’s CEO who sold the 143-year-old liquor empire to Vivendi in 2000, faces charges of conspiracy and identity theft, as well as violations of federal anti-racketeering law, in the case involving the self-styled self-help group NXIVM.

Prosecutors say NXIVM (pronounced nexium) was actually a pyramid scheme with a secret sex-slavery ring known as DOS. The group’s former leader, Keith Raniere, faces a sweeping set of charges including sex trafficking and child pornography.

Believed to be 39 or 40, Bronfman told the court in Brooklyn today that she wanted to keep Mark Geragos as her trial lawyer despite news reports he is an unindicted co-conspirator described in new criminal complaints against Avenatti.

Bronfman also said she retained Avenatti briefly and is aware that both he and Geragos met with prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York on March 19 about her case. 

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said Avenatti had proposed providing the government with information in exchange for a benefit to Bronfman. 

It’s not clear what either the information or the benefit was.

Bronfman told the judge Avenatti attended the meeting “as a lawyer but in a consulting role,” and said he is no longer representing her. 

For today’s conflict-of-interest proceedings, known as a curcio hearing, the court was given a letter confirmig that Avenatti is out of the picture.

“Mr. Avenatti briefly – for a matter of days – represented Ms. Bronfman as a consultant in connection with this matter and in a civil matter pending in the Western District of New York, although the exact terms of what his role might be in the civil matter were not formalized and were not settled, to Ms. Bronfman’s knowledge,” Bronfman’s curcio counsel Donna Newman wrote.

Wednesday was the first time the public learned of Avenatti’s connection to the case. Federal prosecutors alleged in New York this week that Avenatti tried to extort Nike for over $20 million, and in California that he embezzled money from a client. Geragos has refused to confirm reports that he is the unindicted co-conspirator in the Nike case.

Garaufis said he called the hearing because it’s possible Geragos could also face “criminal exposure.” Geragos could be charged and prosecuted for some matter having nothing to do with Bronfman, Garaufis explained, and could end up putting his own interests ahead of hers. The judge described scenarios of Geragos being hostile toward prosecutors or trying to curry favor with them. Bronfman said she understood and that she wanted to keep him on.

Geragos told reporters later that he was pleased by Bronfman’s decision.

“There’s something really refreshing, in this day and age, about a client that’s that satisfied with what you’re doing,” he said outside the courtroom, calling her faith in him “gratifying.”

High-profile criminal defense attorney Benjamin Brafman was also in attendance Thursday to explain to the judge that Geragos had briefly retained him in another matter, a partnership that Brafman said lasted mere hours. That hiring could have created another conflict of interest, as Raniere’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo and Teny Geragos — incidentally, Mark Geragos’ daughter — work in Brafman’s firm.

This afternoon’s proceedings were rescheduled from Wednesday after Bronfman appeared to stumble and sway on her feet, following a sealed sidebar conversation. Caught by a lawyer, her face yellowish white, Bronfman was ushered into a conference room where she was examined by. paramedics. Lawyers for Bronfman said later she blacked out for 45 seconds to a minute.

“Honestly, I was just very scared yesterday,” she told the judge today in a quiet voice tinged with a British accent. “This whole situation has been very stressful.”

Though born in New York, Bronfman is said to lived primarily in England with her mother after her parents’ divorce. When asked by Garaufis if her mind was clear, the liquor heiress replied that she has not had a drink in 14 years.

A curcio hearing for Raniere is scheduled for Friday at 3 p.m. Opening arguments in the trial, which at this point will also include co-defendants Kathy Russell, Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman, as well as Raniere and Bronfman, are set for April 29.

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