Clare Bronfman Pleads Guilty in Nxivm ‘Sex Cult’ Case, Leaving Leader to Stand Trial Alone

The Seagram’s liquor heiress was one of two women who pleaded guilty on Friday in a racketeering case against the cultlike group that branded members.

The New York Times/April 19, 2019

By Colin Moynihan and Barry Meier

Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, was among the most high-profile members of a cultlike organization in which some women were branded and compelled to have sex with the leader. Her wealth helped finance the group, known as Nxivm.

But on Friday afternoon, Ms. Bronfman, 40, pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to charges arising from an indictment filed last year against her and several other followers of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere.

“I am truly remorseful,” Ms. Bronfman told Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis as she pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification. “I wanted to do good in the world.”

A few minutes later, the group’s longtime bookkeeper, Kathy Russell, 61, pleaded guilty to one count of visa fraud.

The latest guilty pleas mean Mr. Raniere will stand trial alone next month on federal racketeering charges, occupying center stage without the women who once idolized and supported him. In recent weeks, three of his other co-defendants, including the actress Allison Mack, have pleaded guilty to various charges.

Based near Albany, Nxivm billed itself as a self-help organization, offering workshops that promised self-fulfillment. But it had a dark side. Some women were recruited into a secret order within the group, branded on the pelvis with a symbol containing Mr. Raniere’s initials, and coerced into having sex with him, prosecutors said.

Federal authorities began investigating the organization after The New York Times published an article in late 2017 detailing how women had to provide personal secrets as “collateral” to join Mr. Raniere’s secret sorority and were warned that damaging or embarrassing information would be made public if they disclosed the sorority’s existence.

Since then, federal officials have filed wide-ranging charges against Mr. Raniere and other leaders and officials of Nxivm. An indictment unsealed last year accused Mr. Raniere and his followers of taking part in a racketeering enterprise that was involved in identity theft, money laundering, sex trafficking and extortion, among other things.

In March, Mr. Raniere was additionally charged with having a sexual relationship with two underage girls, including one who was said to be 15 years old when the abuse began.

Ms. Bronfman is the youngest daughter of Edgar Bronfman, the former chairman of Seagram Company who died in 2013. She had been one of Mr. Raniere’s most passionate followers.

A former champion equestrian, she joined Nxivm in the early 2000s and eventually became his legal enforcer, filing and financing lawsuits against his enemies, both real and perceived.

Kathy Russell heading to the courthouse in Brooklyn on Friday. Ms. Russell was Nxivm’s bookkeeper for more than a decade.

A prosecutor, Moira Penza, told the court on Friday that Ms. Bronfman had made a false statement to the government about an undocumented immigrant who provided “labor and service” for herself and Nxivm. Ms. Bronfman had also made it possible for Mr. Raniere to use a credit card belonging to someone who had died, Ms. Penza said.

Ms. Bronfman admitted to the court she had committed those crimes. In a barely audible voice, she told Judge Garaufis that she had been born into “immense privilege,” but had broken the law. Ms. Bronfman's plea agreement with the government calls for her to forfeit $6 million, Judge Garaufis said in court.

Ms. Russell was the group’s bookkeeper for more than a decade and was indicted on two counts of racketeering conspiracy last July.

She pleaded guilty to a single count of visa fraud, acknowledging to the court that in early 2014, she had made false statements in a document to the United States Consulate in Mexico to help a woman named Loreta Garza Davila obtain a visa.

“I’m very sorry for the trouble I have caused,” Ms. Russell told the judge, her voice breaking. “I compromised my own principles.”

Ms. Russell faces between six months and a year in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. She will be sentenced on July 31. Ms. Bronfman faces between 21 and 27 months in prison and will be sentenced on July 25.

Mr. Raniere has denied all the charges against him. “We are going to trial,” his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, said on Friday. “We don’t believe Ms. Russell and Ms. Bronfman should have been charged, and we are happy they’re out of the case.”

Court papers have described Nxivm as a rigorously hierarchical organization in which Mr. Raniere, who was known as “Vanguard,” demanded obedience from followers. High-ranking members who answered to Mr. Raniere could be equally demanding of those below them.

In March, a co-founder of the group, Nancy Salzman, known as “Prefect,” pleaded guilty. Ms. Salzman, who founded Nxivm in the 1990s with Mr. Raniere, was charged with identity theft and altering records to influence the outcome of a lawsuit against the organization.

Earlier this month, Ms. Mack, an actress who had appeared on the television show “Smallville,” also pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges.

Prosecutors described Ms. Mack as “a first-line master” in the group’s secret sorority, known as D.O.S., an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.”

Prosecutors said that group was organized into circles of female “slaves,” who were led by “masters,” and was meant to groom sexual partners for Mr. Raniere. The women in D.O.S., prosecutors said, were required to give their recruiter, or “master,” naked photographs or other compromising material.

When Ms. Mack was arrested last year, officials said she had recruited women as “slaves” and had required them to have sex with Mr. Raniere.

But during her guilty plea, Ms. Mack did not say whether women were blackmailed into engaging in sexual acts with the group’s leader. She only acknowledged obtaining “labor and services” from two anonymous women cited in the indictment.

As part of a criminal complaint, an F.B.I. agent said Mr. Raniere had a “rotating group of fifteen to twenty women” with whom he maintained sexual relations. Those women were allowed to have sex only with him, the agent added.

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