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After the billionaire Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. told Forbes magazine that the self-help group Nxivm was a cult, some of its members came up with a plan to hack into his computer and spy on his emails, according to one of the people who took part in that effort.
A witness in the racketeering and sex trafficking trial of the Nxivm’s leader, Keith Raniere, described on Tuesday the group’s efforts to keep tabs on Mr. Bronfman, who died in 2013. They also monitored other perceived enemies, the witness said.
After emails to Mr. Bronfman containing spyware went unopened, his daughter, Clare Bronfman, a high-ranking Nxivm member, installed the program directly on her father’s computer, said the witness — whom prosecutors identified only by her first name, Daniela.
Soon, Daniela said, she was able to figure out the password to Mr. Bronfman’s AOL account.
“I would read all of his correspondence,” Daniela testified. “I would methodically check email by email.”
She added that she would cut and paste emails into a file, transfer them to a USB drive and then hand them over to Mr. Raniere, who she said appeared to be “pleased” with her work.
Mr. Bronfman was the former chairman of the Seagram Company, a major philanthropist and president of the World Jewish Congress. His daughters, Clare and Sara, joined Mr. Raniere’s group, and Sara was said by members to have supported it financially.
In 2003, Mr. Bronfman told Forbes magazine that, even though he once took a Nxivm course, he was troubled by the time, money and emotional investment his two daughters had put into the organization. “I think it is a cult,” he said.
Earlier in the trial, Stephen Herbits, a longtime associate of Mr. Bronfman, said that he believed the billionaire had sought the advice of a cult deprogrammer, Rick Ross, to “protect” his daughters. He recalled a “fairly hostile” communication between Clare Bronfman and her father in which Mr. Bronfman denied that he had funded Mr. Ross.
Daniela testified the monitoring of Mr. Bronfman’s emails went on for an extended period. “It wasn’t days or weeks or months,” she said. “It was a really long time.”
Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced nex-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based near Albany. He is now on trial on charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking.
His followers regarded Mr. Raniere as the wisest and most ethical man in the world, but witnesses and prosecutors said that he exploited some women among the devotees, some of whom were branded with his initials and assigned to have sex with him.
On her second day of testimony, Daniela said that between 2004 and 2006 she spent much of her time around Mr. Raniere and observed his efforts to obtain the personal information and banking records of people who were part of a “list of enemies” who he believed were out to destroy Nxivm.
Those included Mr. Ross, the cult deprogrammer, and a man named Joe O’Hara who was involved in court battles with Nxivm members.
Mr. Raniere’s chief lieutenant in those operations, Daniela said, was Kristin Keeffe, a Nxivm member in charge of the group’s legal department and known for her intense loyalty to him.
“She once told me she would take a bullet for Keith,” Daniela said. “She is the one who would take a fall if anything happened.”
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Ms. Keeffe and Mr. Raniere knew “some of what they were doing, at least, was not kosher,” Daniela said. She added that it was clear to her that Mr. Raniere, known as “Vanguard,” was the one making decisions.
At one point, Daniela said, Mr. Raniere decided to look into the case of a Nxivm student named Kristin Snyder, who had been presumed dead after disappearing and leaving behind a note that was said to have mentioned the group.
Mr. Raniere paid $24,000 to obtain Ms. Snyder’s email password, Daniela said, and intended to prove that she was alive and that word of her death was part of a conspiracy.
“Keith believed it was a plot to create negative publicity,” she said.
Mr. Raniere turned to her for help in spying upon the white-haired, white-bearded Mr. O’Hara, Daniela said, asking if she had any contacts who were versed in hacking.
Daniela said that when she questioned how hacking could be reconciled with the ethical values that Nxivm purported to advance, Mr. Raniere told her that the group was being threatened by malefactors and could not limit the weapons it deployed.
She said that Mr. Raniere told her: “We’re going to do unethical things ethically” — and added that she was persuaded by that argument.
Daniela said she first consulted a reputed hacker for help in getting access to Mr. O’Hara’s computer but was rebuffed. So she taught herself hacking tactics, learning how to send emails with “keylogger” spyware that would record keystrokes and screenshots and send them secretly to a server she had set up.
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Later, she said, Mr. Raniere and others asked her to hack into computer accounts belonging to her sister, Marianna, also a Nxivm member, who was suspected of being in touch with an ex-boyfriend.
Daniela said that she helped that spying effort but would not read her sister’s private messages.
“I know what I did was wrong,” she said. “I feel bad that I contributed to the manipulation and abuse of my own sister.”
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