ALBANY – Imprisoned NXIVM leader Keith Raniere is suing the federal prison that holds him in Arizona, alleging prison officials wrongly cut short phone conversations he's had with his attorneys.
The former Saratoga County-based cult leader contends in court papers that officials at the Tucson federal penitentiary also prevented him from meeting with a longtime supporter, Suneel Chakravorty, whom Raniere identified as having power of attorney.
Raniere, 61, known by supporters as “Vanguard,” who commanded the NXIVM self-help organization based in Colonie for two decades, was convicted in June 2019 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn of sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and racketeering charges. Raniere is serving a 120-year prison sentence. His appeal was recently heard in Manhattan before three judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Raniere’s lawsuit, filed May 6 by Arizona attorney Stacy Scheff, named as defendants U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland; federal Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal; Tucson penitentiary warden Barbara VonBlanckensee; and Anthony Gallion, a lieutenant at the prison. The suit asked for a court order to prevent prison officials from "retaliating, and from actively frustrating" Raniere's efforts to exercise his rights to the courts and an attorney.
On May 4, the lawsuit stated, Raniere was on the phone with his attorney, Joseph Tully, when prison officials cut the call short without warning. It said that soon after, a prison official directed Raniere to visit an administrative office where Gallion asked Raniere about people on his approved list of visitors. It said Gallion told Raniere the list was being "scrubbed," that Raniere would have to apply to a unit manager to have anyone reapproved and that Chakravorty was unlikely to be reapproved.
On May 6, the suit said, prison officials cut short another phone conversation between Raniere and attorney Joseph Daugherty. It contends that the Bureau of Prisons "was aware that federal prison wardens retaliate against individual prisoners based on personal animus and not supported by any legitimate penological purpose but failed to take action to prevent it, and perpetuated the policy and practice."
The suit alleged that a year earlier, prison officials abruptly ended a May 2, 2021 visit to Raniere by Chakravorty — and permanently revoked Chakravorty's visitation privileges. The suit said Chakravorty can now only communicate with Raniere if Chakravorty is on Raniere's list of approved callers. But such calls are monitored and recorded even though Chakravorty, according to the suit, is an agent of Tully. The suit said Gallion refused to tell Raniere why the actions were being done other than mentioning that an investigation was underway.
Chakravorty, formerly of Florida, is among a group of NXIVM members who have maintained their support for Raniere. Last November, federal prosecutors alleged that Chakravorty possessed court-restricted evidence and sexually explicit photos of a victim in the NXIVM case. The trial judge, Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, had ordered that such pretrial evidence was not to be shared by anyone outside of Raniere's defense team. The prosecutors said Chakravorty planned to use it on Raniere's behalf. Chakravorty denied the allegations. He was not charged with any wrongdoing.
Raniere's suit accused prison officials of unlawfully frustrating and interfering with Raniere's First Amendment access to court; retaliation against Raniere based on rights protected by the First Amendment; and violating Raniere's Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. It asked for attorney fees and other costs accrued.
The case was assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins.
Benjamin O'Cone, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
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