(Written by Nicole Hong)
When Clare Bronfman discovered a self-help group called NXIVM in 2003, she was struggling with social anxiety, unable to accept her identity as the daughter of a famous billionaire. NXIVM gave her a sense of purpose, she wrote in court papers.
In the course of the next 15 years, she became part of the group’s executive board, even as NXIVM faced mounting criticism that it was an abusive cult that coerced women into sexual slavery. Tapping her fortune, Bronfman unleashed an army of lawyers and investigators to pursue NXIVM’s critics.
On Wednesday, a federal judge sentenced Bronfman, 41, to six years and nine months in prison for her role in enabling what prosecutors said was a corrupt organization.
“I am troubled by evidence suggesting that Bronfman repeatedly and consistently leveraged her wealth and social status as a means of intimidating, controlling, and punishing” NXIVM’s enemies, said Judge Nicholas Garaufis of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.
Minutes after the judge read his sentence, Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, touched her throat as if struggling to swallow. Moments later, federal marshals escorted her out of the courtroom into custody.
Ronald Sullivan, a lawyer for Bronfman, said he would appeal the sentence, calling it an “abomination.”
Bronfman was the first defendant to be sentenced in the NXIVM investigation, which has shattered the sunny facade of an organization that purported to help people achieve their personal goals through “executive success” workshops. Its leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted in June 2019 of racketeering, sex trafficking, fraud and other crimes.
The sentencing hearing lasted more than four hours. Nine victims of NXIVM spoke with emotion about how their lives had been destroyed by Bronfman, leaving behind ruined marriages, careers and reputations.
Some of them said Bronfman sued them relentlessly, drove them into bankruptcy and even persuaded local prosecutors to initiate criminal charges against them
At times, the hearing felt like an intervention. Several of the women looked straight at Bronfman, sitting silently at the defense table, and begged her to denounce Raniere. Bronfman told the judge last month that she could not disavow Raniere because she still believed in him.
“I pray that you will take the claws of Keith Raniere out of you, and you will learn who Clare Bronfman really is,” said one of the victims, Susan Dones, through tears.
“He is killing you,” she said.
After the victims spoke, Garaufis stared sternly at Bronfman for several moments. A heavy silence fell over the courtroom.
NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um), which was headquartered near Albany, New York, became known as a “sex cult” after trial testimony showed that Raniere had groomed a group of women in the group to be his sexual partners. During a secret ritual, the women were branded with his initials near their pelvis while saying, “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”
Before Raniere’s trial, Bronfman and four other leaders within his inner circle pleaded guilty, including top NXIVM recruiter and former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack.
Bronfman, who was not a member of the secretive women’s group, pleaded guilty to two charges related to identity theft and immigration fraud.
But as he gave Bronfman a sentence that was even longer than prosecutors had requested, Garaufis said Bronfman had willfully ignored the uglier side of NXIVM.
“I don’t know how many other multimillionaires are out there, ready to devote the limitless resources at their disposal to supporting pyramid schemes run by dangerous criminals,” Garaufis said.
Prosecutors have said that Raniere could not have committed his crimes without Bronfman. Her late father, Edgar Bronfman, was a billionaire businessman who became an enemy of NXIVM after he called it a “cult” in a 2003 Forbes article.
One former NXIVM member, Kristin Keeffe, told the court that after she had a son with Raniere, Bronfman pressured her to say the baby was adopted. Bronfman said that her father, who she believed was leading a conspiracy to destroy NXIVM, would harm the baby unless Keeffe hid the fact that the baby’s father was Raniere.
Keeffe said she later realized it was all a scheme to help Raniere avoid paying child support.
Bronfman became a veritable ATM for Raniere. Prosecutors estimate that Bronfman spent at least $116 million on NXIVM. She funded the organization’s lawsuits and secured patents for Raniere’s inventions.
On Wednesday, Bronfman gave a short speech to the court without denouncing Raniere or NXIVM.
“I’m immensely grateful and privileged because all over the world, people are praying for me because they know my goodness,” she said in a barely audible voice. “It doesn’t mean I haven’t made mistakes.”
Since Raniere co-founded NXIVM in 1998, around 18,000 people have taken its courses, which cost thousands of dollars each. A driving force for recruitment were the ranks of Hollywood actors, Ivy League graduates and entrepreneurs who endorsed its workshops.
At the heart of the NXIVM case was a puzzling question: How did so many wealthy and highly educated people become trapped in a group that required them to bow, wear sashes, call their leader “Vanguard” and greet him with a kiss on the mouth?
Former NXIVM members said Bronfman’s pattern of punishing dissenters made them feel incapable of leaving or reporting their abuse to law enforcement.
Bronfman even hired a company to search for private banking information for perceived enemies of NXIVM, including journalists, judges who oversaw NXIVM litigation and Sen. Chuck Schumer, according to prosecutors.
Ivy Nevares, a victim who spoke by video on Wednesday, said Bronfman once recruited her to care for a woman who had suffered a psychotic breakdown during a NXIVM workshop. Bronfman and NXIVM’s leaders refused to take the woman to the hospital, fearful it would expose the organization, Nevares said.
Barbara Bouchey, an ex-girlfriend of Raniere who left NXIVM, said that even in recent weeks, Bronfman was still attempting to smear her reputation through litigation.
“You have not stopped damaging me,” Bouchey said, crying and turning to face Bronfman. “Will you never stop?”