BROOKLYN (CN) — Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison on Wednesday for her role as the longtime financier of purported self-help group NXIVM, which was essentially a pyramid scheme with sex slaves.
“Ms. Bronfman's crimes were not committed in a vacuum,” U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said during the five-hour sentencing hearing held in person at the Brooklyn federal courthouse. "They were committed in connection with her role in NVIXM and her close relationship with [Keith] Raniere, and I believe that it would be inappropriate for me to consider them divorced from that context.”
Of the five women in NXIVM (pronounced Nexium) who were charged alongside founder Keith Raniere after his arrest in Mexico, Bronfman is the first to be sentenced on the federal charges.
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 six-week trial in Brooklyn last year against lone defendant Raniere, whom prosecutors called a “modern-day Svengali.”
Federal prosecutors accused the Seagram’s heiress of committing wire fraud to make it appear that a victim was eligible for an investor visa, and of helping Raniere avoid paying taxes by “arranging to pay the monthly credit card bill using [a] dead person’s bank account,” according to court documents.
She also tried to discredit victims and “orchestrated abusive litigation” against people who spoke out, prosecutors wrote in a detention memo. Additionally, the government claimed Bronfman had schemed to get usernames and passwords from perceived enemies of NXIVM so the group could monitor their emails, including Bronfman's father, Edgar Bronfman Sr., who was quoted in a 2003 Forbes article as saying, "I think it's a cult."
Bronfman pleaded guilty in April 2019 to conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of identification. As part of her plea, she also agreed to forfeit $6 million based on the property used to facilitate the harboring charge.
She faced a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. Her attorneys had asked the Clinton-appointed Judge Garaufis for a non-custodial sentence of three years of probation on her guilty pleas.
Raniere, who was known to the group’s followers as “Vanguard”, 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 in their pubic areas and kept in captivity thanks to collateral, including compromising images they provided upon joining.
Prosecutors alleged in Raniere’s criminal complaint that some of the women recruited by DOS were dissatisfied “with the pace of their advancement at NXIVM.”
In exchange for “an opportunity to join an organization that would change her life,” the complaint states, each new slave was forced to provide collateral, like sexually explicit photographs or other personal information, which turned into a monthly pattern of extortion.
Claiming Bronfman spent millions of dollars of her inherited fortune on Raniere’s endeavors, federal prosecutors had asked Judge Garaufis to hand down a five-year sentence along with forfeiture, restitution and a $500,000 fine.
“There can be little doubt that Raniere would not have been able to commit the crimes with which he was convicted were it not for powerful allies like Bronfman,” the government’s sentencing memo states. “She pursued Raniere’s accusers and critics by dispatching powerful teams of lawyers, private investigators and public relations firms to attempt to discredit them and dredge up information that could be used to undermine their claims.”
In a sentencing memo filed last week, Bronfman’s counsel tried to distinguish the conduct of her plea counts from the lurid aspects of the DOS sex cult conspiracy within the larger NXIVM organization that was detailed in the government’s presentence report.
“The United States is seeking to lay the blame for DOS at Clare Bronfman’s feet because she has a large checkbook. That is inappropriate,” Washington-based attorney Ronald Sullivan wrote.
“In full recognition of her role in NXIVM, the government never charged Clare with anything related to human or sex trafficking and permitted her (and only one other defendant) to plead guilty to non-RICO charges,” Sullivan added. (Parentheses in original.)
But Bronfman faced criticism from both the judge and DOS victims on Wednesday for her ongoing refusal to renounce Raniere.
"It was one thing to believe in NVIXM's mission and methods, and to adhere to its teachings," Garaufis said at the sentencing hearing. "But the record is clear that she used her incredible wealth and attempted to use her social status and connections not only to support NXIVM’s work, but also as a means of intimidating, threatening, and exacting revenge upon individuals who dared to challenge its dogma."
The judge added, "This culture of stifling and threatening dissenters, a culture that Ms. Bronfman clearly participated in and perpetuated, is the same culture that gave rise to the darkest and most horrific crimes that Raniere and others committed.”
Bronfman, who has been kept on house arrest under $100 million bond since her July 2018 arrest, was immediately remanded to federal custody by the judge.
In addition to the 81-month sentence, the judge ordered a $500,000 fine and three years of supervised release.
According court filings, she is worth $210 million, though about $100 million of that money is held in a Goldman Sachs trust that she cannot touch, her lawyer explained at her bail hearing.
Raniere’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 27. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn has requested a sentence of life imprisonment for the convicted cult leader.Follow @jruss_jruss
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