Attorney general probes nonprofit associated with NXIVM

AG seeks records of Ethical Science Foundation and doctor tied to group

The Albany Times-Union/March 25, 2018

By Brendan J. Lyons

The state attorney general's office is investigating a nonprofit foundation associated with the NXIVM corporation that allegedly sponsored brain-activity and other human behavioral studies without any apparent oversight, according to court records.

The nonprofit Ethical Science Foundation was formed in 2007 by Clare W. Bronfman, an heiress of the Seagram Co. business empire who has described herself as the operations director of NXIVM. Bronfman, who owns a horse farm in Delanson, is listed in public records as the trustee and donor of the Ethical Science Foundation.

At the request of the attorney general's office, a state Supreme Court justice recently signed an order directing Bronfman and Dr. Brandon B. Porter, who is involved with NXIVM and conducted the human studies, to turn over all documentation associated with the research, including any written communications, videos, conclusions, consent forms and the names and addresses of "individuals associated with Ethical Science Foundation who participated in any manner with the studies."

The attorney general's office also is seeking financial records from the Ethical Science Foundation, including its annual budgets and bank account numbers, as well as the names and addresses of any board members, trustees or employees.

NXIVM's supporters have insisted it is a self-help group focused on business and personal improvement. NXIVM officials and associates have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and dispute any allegation that it is a cult.

Internal Revenue Service records indicate the Ethical Science Foundation acquired more than $145,000 worth of computers, medical equipment and brain-activity monitors several years ago. A 2015 IRS form filed by the nonprofit listed its "charitable activities" as "Tourettes study — studying the effects of a specific and innovative method has [sic] on individuals with Tourettes syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder." The 2015 tax form said its expenses were $32,620.

In December, a separate investigation of NXIVM by the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn was revealed when several women who were once associated with NXIVM and its co-founder, Keith Raniere, confirmed they had been interviewed by federal law enforcement officials from that office. The Justice Department's probe, some of the women said, is examining NXIVM's business dealings, including its practice of recruiting members from abroad. The Justice Department has declined to confirm the investigation.

Among those interviewed by the Justice Department are women who claimed they were lured into a secret club established by female NXIVM members that required them to consent to being branded with a design that includes the initials of Raniere and a NXIVM associate, Allison Mack. Raniere, in a statement posted on NXIVM's website several months ago, said these women were part of a "social group" and that he is not associated with that group, which he said is "not part of NXIVM."

"Over the past months, there have been extensive independent investigations performed, by highly qualified individuals, and they have firmly concluded that there is no merit to the allegations that we are abusing, coercing or harming individuals," Raniere said in the statement. "These allegations are most disturbing to me as non-violence is one of my most important values."

The state Health Department faced scrutiny last year when it was reported that the agency had brushed off complaints about the brain studies and the branding, which was done by a licensed medical doctor associated with NXIVM. The office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was reviewing the Health Department's handling of the complaints, but so far has taken no action publicly.

The attorney general's charities bureau, which oversees and regulates nonprofit organizations, is leading the probe of the Ethical Science Foundation, according to the court records.

The Times Union reported previously that Porter — who abruptly resigned from St. Peter's Hospital last year when his involvement with the brain studies became public -— had apparently not published a scientific study in a number of years, and there is no indication his private research was being overseen by an independent review board. The attorney general's recent court filings make note of that apparent deficiency in the research.

"ESF has funded the research of Dr. Brandon Porter, a physician who has conducted human subject research under the auspices of ESF without oversight by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) or human research committee in violation of Public Health Law," the attorney general's office wrote in support of its application for court intervention. In general, they added, "The failure to comply with human subject protections required by law is a gross violation of public policy."

Efforts to reach Porter and NXIVM officials, including Bronfman, were not successful.

One of the complaints initially brushed off by the state Health Department was filed in August by a woman in Vancouver, British Columbia, who was associated with NXIVM and said she was traumatized by a bizarre experiment in 2016 in which Porter showed her videos depicting graphic violence.

The Vancouver woman, Jennifer Kobelt, said the experiment she was subjected to — which had no apparent connection to Tourette's syndrome — took place in a small commercial building in Halfmoon that has been used for years by NXIVM for training and seminars. Kobelt said she was recruited for the study by an assistant of Nancy Salzman, who is NXIVM's president, and that she knew of at least four other women who took part. Kobelt said she was not told what the study was for or what would take place, and that she was not asked to sign any documents indicating she had been informed what the study was about and consented to take part.

Porter drove Kobelt to the building that day, she said, hooked her up to an EEG machine that monitors brain activity and showed her terrifying images and videos of murder, rape and mutilation. She described her ordeal to the Times Union last year and also detailed her experience in a complaint filed with the state Department of Health last summer.

In response to the complaint that Kobelt filed with the state Health Department last summer, the agency sent her a letter saying that what she described was "not medical misconduct."

Another woman who was previously associated with NXIVM contacted the state Health Department last year and provided information about her experience in an experiment conducted by Porter. Her attorney confirmed that information. The Times Union is not publishing her name to protect her privacy.

The woman also provided the Times Union with a written outline detailing her involvement in the study of obsessive compulsive disorder. She was with NXIVM from 2012 until June 2017 and said she had been diagnosed with OCD in 2000 and took medication to treat the condition.

In August 2016, during a NXIVM retreat in the Lake George region, Salzman, who co-founded NXIVM with Raniere and has a nursing background, "informed me they were still interested in using me for the OCD study. She told me that ... Dr. Brandon Porter would connect me to a brain wave cap and measure my brain activity while the (NXIVM executive success program) technology was used on me."

The woman said that she had been required to have her psychiatrist write a letter acknowledging her care would be transferred to Porter. She said Porter and Salzman were involved when she took part in two brain-activity studies in the fall of 2016.

Later, the woman said, after she had uploaded information about her participation in the study on a Facebook post, Salzman contacted her.

"I remember her telling me in that call that I was not to speak of being part of the study," she said.

In a follow-up session with Porter, she said, he asked her how she felt about her weight, what part of her body she obsesses about, and about "murder, harming myself, harming others and other more depraved topics."

In 2000, during a deposition in a bankruptcy proceeding, Salzman, who records indicate has been a licensed nurse in New York since 1983, described herself as a "psychotherapist," while acknowledging that it is "not an earned degree ... it's a descriptive term." She also testified that beginning in 1985 and continuing through 1992, she had taken "neurolinguistic programming courses."

Porter's research on Kobelt and other women involved with NXIVM may be subject to ethical rules governing scientific research, according to medical experts interviewed by the Times Union last year.

Kobelt said that Porter routinely monitored the brain activity of her and other women, usually while they were taking part in NXIVM-related "personal development trainings."

NXIVM issued a statement on its website last October defending its practices following reports about Porter's experiment and the secret women's group that took part in branding rituals. The corporate statement noted the company's interest in research, saying: "NXIVM has documented an initial case study of ten individuals suffering from Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disease known to be incurable, who were able to radically reduce, and in some cases completely eradicate, their symptoms."

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