Seagram Heiress Denies Bankrolling Pyramid Scheme of Sex Slaves

Clare Bronfman, center, leaves federal court in Brooklyn on, April 19, 2019, after pleading guilty to charges implicating her in a sex-trafficking conspiracy case against an upstate New York self-help group. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Over a year after her guilty plea helped take down NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere, the heiress to the Seagram’s liquor empire fought Tuesday against the government’s characterization of her as having bankrolled what was essentially a pyramid scheme with sex slaves. 

Clare Bronfman pleaded guilty in April 2019 to counts of conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of identification. Ahead of her sentencing next month, however, Bronfman’s lawyers want to distinguish the conduct of her plea counts from the lurid aspects of the NXIVM (pronounced Nexium) conspiracy detailed in the government’s presentence report. 

“The PSR (presentencing report) makes sweeping, unsupported and unsupportable claims that Ms. Bronfman ‘funded’ crimes for which was not charge and for which she did not enter a plea,” lawyer Ronald Sullivan wrote last week in a letter to the court. 

Back in 2018, Bronfman was one of five women in NXIVM who were charged alongside Raniere after the cult leader’s arrest in Mexico. All of them — Bronfman, “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell, and mother-daughter duo Nancy and Lauren Salzman — pleaded guilty, setting the stage for a slam-dunk trial in Brooklyn last year of the man whom prosecutors called a “modern-day Svengali.”

Raniere was found guilty on all counts, including sex trafficking, forced labor and wire fraud. Though his NXIVM group was promoted as an international professional-development organization, Raniere was accused of having created a pyramid sex-slavery scheme within that structure called “DOS” or “The Vow.”

In DOS there were “masters” like Lauren Salzman who recruited other women as sex “slaves” for Raniere. Prosecutors showed how these women were branded with Raniere’s initials on their pubic lines and kept in captivity thanks to collateral, including compromising images they provided upon joining.

Sullivan’s letter cites “real concerns, based on the PSR and informal conversations with the government, that what has come to light thus far and what the government may seek to argue at sentencing does not adequately explain Clare’s role and leaves behind an unfortunate number of material misimpressions as well as outright inaccuracies and unsupported allegations of fact.”

“All we ask is that Clare Bronfman be sentenced for what she actually did, and not based on what she did not do, notwithstanding uncorroborated allegations and innuendo to the contrary.”

Sullivan requests that the court hold a Fatico hearing, wherein the judge can determine whether a defendant’s punishment should factor in allegations in a government sentencing memorandum that are disputed by the defense.

Such a hearing, Sullivan argues, would show that DOS was a “secret society” totally separate from Bronfman’s involvement with NXIVM, and that she did not knowingly fund any “sex cult” or facilitate sex trafficking. 

During a videoconference Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis reserved a decision on holding a Fatico hearing until the parties submit papers on the presentence report next month. 

“If we do have a Fatico hearing, it will be focused and limited in scope,” Garaufis said during the 30-minute remote hearing. 

“The court went through a six-week trial with Raniere; much of the evidence and testimony in that case reflected on your client,” the judge explained. “To the extent that the PSR may be inaccurate as to your client’s involvement in these activities, we can then move ahead to a Fatico hearing. And it would seem that we’re not there yet but we may get there.” 

Attorneys for the government said that Bronfman’s counsel has not identified any factual disputes in provisions of the presentence report that would be resolved by a Fatico hearing. 

“To the extent that counsel is saying Ms. Bronfman didn’t provide financial support to Raniere, that can be solved with bank records that clearly demonstrate that she did,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar said at the hearing.  

“To the extent that counsel is actually saying that Clare Bronfman didn’t knowingly provide financial support to an exploiter or abuser of women, that’s an argument that they can make to your honor at sentencing,” Hajjar added. “There’s no fact there that would be appropriately decided at a Fatico hearing.”

Judge Garaufis, a Clinton appointee, said that if he did grant a Fatico hearing, Bronfman would have to take the stand as a witness. 

“I’m not going to just deal with what Ms. Bronfman is thinking through her mother or her sister or some friend out in Fiji, she’s going have to do it herself,” he said. 

“You’re not going to slip through the hearing process by just bringing along people who knew Ms. Bronfman,” the judge warned counsel. “That just won’t work.” 

Bronfman, who was present on the videoconference Tuesday afternoon, has been kept on house arrest, under $100 million bond, since her 2018 arrest.

Prosecutors have estimated that the heiress faces 21 to 27 months in prison — though she faces a maximum of 25 years — and will owe about $96,000 in restitution payments to a victim identified only as Jane Doe 12.  

As part of her guilty plea, she also agreed to forfeit $6 million based on the property used to facilitate the harboring charge. 

She is set to be sentenced on Sept. 30 at 11 a.m.

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