Law Beat: NXIVM past attorneys' defense of Seagrams fortune heiress

Albany Times-Union/September 6, 2020

By Robert Gavin

In the years before NXIVM became the focus of a federal racketeering case in Brooklyn and a documentary series on HBO,  Keith Raniere’s cult-like organization carried a well-earned reputation as a relentless litigation machine.

Attorneys for the Colonie-based self-improvement company and its members brought legal cases against perceived enemies and even pushed prosecutors to bring charges against some foes.

Even now, as Seagrams fortune heiress Clare Bronfman is scheduled to be sentenced for her NXIVM-related crimes on Sept. 30, two lawyers involved in Bronfman's past litigation efforts are firmly in her corner — and in one case, still slamming NXIVM's perceived enemies.

William F. Savino, a lawyer with the Buffalo firm of Woods Oviatt Gilman, and Robert D. Crockett, an attorney with the firm of Crockett and Associates in Valencia, Calif., sang Bronfman's praises in letters they sent in late August to Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis. The judge, who presided over the nearly two-month trial last year of Raniere, 60, is well-versed in all things NXIVM and the devotees of Raniere, the man known as "Vanguard." He accepted the guilty pleas of Bronfman and four other NXIVM defendants.

But apparently, Savino and Crockett believe they can provide a view about their client that might sway the judge.

“My heart was deeply saddened to hear of the publicity surrounding Clare’s legal problems in your courtroom,” Crockett told the judge in an Aug. 25 letter. “Clare is one of the sweetest and most compassionate persons I have ever met.”

Crockett told Garaufis he has "never known Clare to consider or discuss unlawful behavior."  Crockett said he also has never heard of Bronfman expressing a desire to be “vengeful or vindictive.”

Garaufis accepted Bronfman's guilty plea and in doing so, he heard Bronfman discuss and admit to unlawful behavior.  The judge also may remember that Crockett's second point is inconsistent with the testimony of Stephen Herbits, a longtime confidante for late Seagram's liquor tycoon Edgar Bronfman who testified against Raniere.

Herbits said that in 2008,  Clare and her older sister, Sara Bronfman-Igtet, pressured him to ask Albany County District Attorney David Soares, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the attorney general of New Jersey to bring criminal charges against several enemies of NXIVM. Herbits said he refused to comply and, in turn, feared would end up on an NXIVM enemies list. According to testimony of a federal agent, that’s exactly what happened.

Savino told the judge Clare Bronfman "was always insistent that our position be ethical, that we were entitled to the relief being sought, and that the remedy is not being pursued via improper means.” Savino portrayed her as a victim. In his Aug. 28 letter,Savino told the judge: “The primary reason I have been repeatedly called on to represent Clare is the history of those around her taking advantage of her wealth.”

Savino described for Garaufis how he previously represented Bronfman against two people, an attorney and a financial planner, whom Savino claimed victimized Bronfman. While he identified neither person, it appeared to be clear it references Albany lawyer Joseph O’Hara, a one-time NXIVM legal advisor, and former NXIVM executive Barbara Bouchey, a financial planner who defected from the organization in 2009.

Left unmentioned by Savino was that NXIVM had placed O’Hara and Bouchey on the company's so-called enemies list, which was kept in files in the basement of NXIVM president Nancy Salzman’s home on Oregon Trail in Halfmoon.

In 2011, the Times Union reported that Bouchey said she was losing her life savings defending herself against NXIVM-related legal action. During one court appearance, Bouchey told acting Supreme Court Justice Roger McDonough: The mere word of Bronfman out of my mouth in any form or shape will have me slammed in (court).”

Bronfman’s new defense attorney, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., has downplayed his client's reputation as the financial muscle behind NXIVM and its litigious ways.  Sullivan said Bronfman loaned money to cover NXIVM legal fees, including patents and patent retention, and litigation to protect the company’s intellectual property, which he said was at least $32 million. Sullivan acknowledged in court documents that a pre-sentencing investigation report said Clare Bronfman, on behalf of NXIVM, hired private investigation firms to investigate perceived enemies of NXIVM and Raniere.   He  downplayed his client's role.

Sullivan also portrayed Bronfman as a victim. Sullivan noted the ongoing civil lawsuit filed against Raniere and 14 associates, including Clare  Bronfman, by more than 80 victims. The suit alleged that the Bronfman’s money help fund meritless lawsuits and try to build criminal cases to silence critics of NXIVM.

Sullivan asked the judge to consider the lawsuit when evaluating statements of victims at Bronfman’s sentencing.

“Clare Bronfman is the ‘deep pocket’ from whom civil plaintiffs undoubtedly hope to recover for their harms,” Sullivan said.

The 41-year-old Bronfman, who has homes in Clifton Park and Manhattan, faces 21 to 27 months in prison based on her guilty pleas last year to  conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification.  She can face more time if the judge goes above federal sentencing guidelines, which he is considering.

Prosecutors are expected to file their own sentencing memo. Raniere, convicted of sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering charges, is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 27.

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