Clare Bronfman, Seagram's liquor heiress, pleads not guilty in NXIVM cult case

Democrat & Chronicle, New York/July 24, 2018

By Jon Campbell

Albany — Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune, was arrested Tuesday morning on a criminal indictment related to NXIVM, an Albany-based self-help group with a cult-like following at the center of a sex-trafficking scandal.

Bronfman and three others, including NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman, were indicted and charged with participating in an alleged racketeering conspiracy that saw members of the group facilitate illegal border crossings, spy on their enemies' emails and use a dead woman's credit card and bank account.

The charges Tuesday came after Keith Raniere, NXIVM's other co-founder and leader, and actress Allison Mack were arrested on sex-trafficking charges earlier this year in connection with a secret sorority of members who were branded with their initials and groomed for sex with Raniere.

Raniere, 57, and Mack, 35, were also indicted on the new racketeering conspiracy charge Tuesday, as were Lauren Salzman, a NXIVM leader and Nancy's daughter, and Kathy Russell, the organization's longtime bookkeeper.

"Keith Raniere was the leader of a racketeering conspiracy in which he and members of his inner circle committed a broad range of serious crimes from identity theft and obstruction of justice to sex trafficking, all to promote and protect Raniere and NXIVM,” Richard Donoghue, the U.S. Attorney for New York's Eastern District, said in a statement. 

Prominent NXIVM members

All of the defendants were prominent members of NXIVM, with most serving on the organization's board at some point over the years.

Raniere, who was raised in Suffern, Rockland County, and known as "Vanguard" to NXIVM members, was originally charged in March and accused of leading DOS, the secret society. 

Paul DerOhannesian, an attorney for Raniere, declined comment Tuesday.

Raniere and Nancy Salzman have led NXIVM since the late 1990s, building it into an international company with thousands of devoted followers paying thousands of dollars for classes. 

They have brought numerous costly lawsuits against their enemies, including Toni Natalie, a Rochester-area woman who once dated Raniere and later became one of NXIVM's earliest and most-forceful critics.

Bronfman, 39, who is of considerable wealth as the daughter of the late former Seagram's president and CEO Edgar Bronfman, has long bankrolled many of Raniere's pursuits, including the pervasive lawsuits against NXIVM foes.

She is accused of overseeing a scheme to use a dead person's credit card and bank account to cover many of Raniere's personal expenses to avoid paying taxes, as well as conspiring to obtain email addresses and passwords of NXIVM enemies and laundering money to help someone illegally cross the border. 

Not guilty plea

Bronfman pleaded not guilty Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn federal court, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis released Bronfman on a $100 million bond and ordered her to home detention with an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet.

In a statement, Bronfman's attorney Susan Necheles said her client "did nothing wrong."

"NXIVM was not a criminal enterprise but instead was an organization that helped thousands of people," Necheles said in a statement.

"The charges against Clare are the result of government overreaching and charging an individual with crimes just because the government disagrees with some beliefs taught by NXIVM and held by Clare."

Like Allison Mack, best known for playing Chloe Sullivan on the CW's Smallville, Lauren Salzman is accused of being a top-level "master" in DOS, which promoted a master-slave relationship among its members.

Prosecutors also said Lauren Salzman participated in a scheme that caused a woman who was once a sexual partner of Raniere's to be confined to a single room in suburban Albany "as punishment after she developed romantic feelings for a man who was not Raniere," according to federal prosecutors.

Salzman and others later followed through to return the woman, who had crossed the border illegally, to Mexico without any identifying documents. When the woman pleaded with her family to provide her documents, Salzman told the family not to respond, according to prosecutors.

She faces forced labor conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges, along with the racketeering conspiracy charge.


Nancy Salzman, known by NXIVM members as "prefect," is accused of helping steal the email addresses and passwords and altering videotapes of her lessons to group members that were used in a federal trial against Rick Ross, a cult "deprogrammer" who was one of the earliest critics of NXIVM.

In court, Lauren Salzman's attorney said Nancy Salzman is suffering from a life-threatening medical condition, though he did not specify. 

Kathy Russell is accused of helping smuggle someone across the Canadian border by giving them a dead person's identification.

Bronfman was arraigned in the Brooklyn federal court where the trial will take place. 

The Salzmans and Russell, meanwhile, had removal hearings in Albany federal court, where Magistrate Judge Daniel Stewart granted the Salzmans bail on $5 million bond and Russell on a $25,000 bond.

It was possible the latter three could remain in prison at least overnight, with Lauren Salzman unable to turn over her passport before the court clerk closed, Nancy Salzman unable to receive one of her surety's signatures until Wednesday morning and Russell unable to afford the bond.

The Salzmans are scheduled to be arraigned in Brooklyn on Wednesday, when they'll enter a plea. Russell is due back in court in Albany on Friday.

The Times Union of Albany first reported the charges Tuesday morning.
Necheles added: "We are confident that Clare will be exonerated."

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