NXIVM Cult Case Defense Attorney Wants to Become a Prosecutor

In this courtroom drawing, convicted sex-cult leader Keith Raniere, center, is seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo during the first day of his sex trafficking trial on May 7, 2019. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Convicted sex-cult leader Keith Raniere will not be sentenced until 2020, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said at a hearing in Brooklyn Friday. 

Sporting a new buzz haircut, convicted sex trafficker and former NXIVM cult leader Raniere wore wrinkled tan scrubs and sneakers to court, in a departure from the sweaters and slacks he donned at trial. 

After an emotional six-week trial, a jury in June found Raniere guilty of sex trafficking, forced labor, wire fraud, creation and possession of child pornography, conspiracy to commit identity theft, extortion, and trafficking and document servitude.

Now, one of his defense attorneys wants to become a prosecutor. 

“This is a very unusual circumstance,” said Garaufis on Friday in the conflict-of-interest hearing, called a curcio hearing. 

It is more common for lawyers to leave the government and go to the private sector, as lead Raniere prosecutor Moira Penza did earlier this summer when she joined the boutique firm Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz. Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York Tanya Hajjar appeared for the government at Friday’s hearing. 

Hajjar signed a letter to Garaufis on Sept. 4 advising him her office had received an application from Teny Geragos, an attorney at the well-known New York defense firm Brafman & Associates. Alongside lead counsel Marc Agnifilo, Paul DerOhannesian and Danielle Smith, Geragos represented Raniere throughout his trial. 

“The government respectfully submits that the pending application on the part of Ms. Geragos to the Office gives rise to a potential conflict of interest. However, in view of the nature of the conflict, Raniere may waive his rights and continue to be represented by Ms. Geragos,” said the letter, adding the government thinks Raniere could waive the conflict. 

On Friday, however, Garaufis said he wanted more information, such as when Geragos applied and how many U.S. Attorney’s offices she sent applications to. Hajjar assured him the application had come after Raniere’s trial concluded.

Avi Moskowitz, Raniere’s curcio counsel appointed specifically for conflict-of-interest hearings, said he had not yet had much opportunity to discuss the issue with his client. 

Following his March 2018 arrest in Mexico, Raniere was charged alongside five NXIVM members, all women, who pleaded guilty before trial: Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, Smallville actress Allison Mack, NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell, and mother-daughter duo Nancy and Lauren Salzman.

Teny Geragos is the daughter of celebrity attorney Mark Gergaos, who has represented the likes of Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Kesha and, notably, Seagram’s Liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, Raniere’s co-defendant in the Brooklyn racketeering case. 

Bronfman underwent two dramatic days of curcio hearings earlier this year over the Geragos family’s involvement in the case. 

In another twist, Bronfman had briefly hired Michael Avenatti, who was charged in March with trying to extort $20 million from Nike. Some news reports have said Mark Geragos is the unnamed co-conspirator described in those charges.

The parties set a filing schedule over whether they think the issue is waivable and will meet to continue the hearing on Halloween. 

“It is what it is, once we figure out what it is,” said Garaufis.

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