NEW YORK – A federal appeals court in Manhattan on Friday upheld the conviction and 120-year prison sentence of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, rejecting arguments that the purported self-help guru from Saratoga County who is widely known as a cult leader was denied a fair trial before he was convicted of sex trafficking and all other charges.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also affirmed the conviction and sentence of Clare Bronfman, the Seagram’s heiress and former NXIVM operations director, who is serving a nearly seven-year sentence for conspiring to conceal and harbor undocumented immigrants for financial gain and identification fraud.
The Second Circuit's ruling continued a bad week for Raniere, 62, formerly of Halfmoon. On Dec. 5, a federal judge in Arizona dismissed Raniere's lawsuit against the prison in Tucscon, where the man known as "Vanguard" is serving his sentence.
Bronfman, 43, formerly of Clifton Park and Manhattan, is serving her sentence of six years and nine months in a prison in Danbury, Conn.
On Friday, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi and Circuit Judges Jose A. Cabranes and Richard J. Sullivan, who listened to the arguments on the 17th floor of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in May, denied the filings from Raniere and Bronfman in a summary order and separate opinion.
"Raniere has failed to persuade us that there is insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions," Cabranes said in the opinion. "Any rational trier of fact could have found coercion beyond a reasonable doubt."
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Raniere attorney Joseph Tully argued to the court that during Raniere's trial, Senior U.S. District Judge Garaufis wrongly cut off defense attorney Marc Agnifilo's cross-examination of star prosecution witness Lauren Salzman. Tully alleged it violated the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees the right for defendants to confront their accusers.
Tully also argued Garaufis prejudiced the jury against Raniere with improper instructions on the legal definition of a "commercial sex act." Tully said it was left so any sex act could be viewed as commercial. Tully claimed Garaufis incorrectly told jurors a "thing of value" did not need to involve a financial component but any act performed with another person for sexual gratification. He argued federal sex trafficking law intended to address sexual exploitation for economic profit.
The Second Circuit, however, was unmoved on both arguments.
The ruling said even if Garaufis erred in cutting off the cross-examination of Lauren Salzman, that "any such error was harmless." The panel said none of the arguments against the sex trafficking convictions were persuasive.
"As we have concluded, the phrase 'anything of value' need not have a monetary or financial component, and the actionable sexual exploitation need not have been conducted for profit," Cabranes said. "The jury was neither misinformed nor misled about the law."
In an email, Tully told the Times Union that "with the ruling today, almost any sex act between two consenting adults can be treated as sex trafficking. It is a terrible precedent for American liberty."
Bronfman attorney Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. told the Times Union he was disappointed in the ruling but "delighted" that his client has filed a new motion in an effort to be set free. He said he would appeal to the Supreme Court "to correct Judge Garaufis’ incoherent sentencing decision."
In June 2019, after a nearly two-month trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn’s Eastern District, jurors convicted Raniere of sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and racketeering charges with underlying acts of child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child, identity theft and extortion.
The Times Union, which first began covering NXIVM in 2003, in 2012 published "Secrets of NXIVM," a series of stories about Raniere and his organization, which was headquartered in a nondescript location in a Colonie office park on New Karner Road. NXIVM's branches spread to Mexico, where it had numerous centers, as well as Canada and locations around the globe.
The 2012 series included revelations that Raniere had been allegedly having sex with underage girls. But the publicity led to no action from local, state or federal law enforcement in the Capital Region, leaving it to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn's Eastern District to bring the case against Raniere and five co-defendants.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Moira Penza, Tanya Hajjar and Mark Lesko prosecuted Raniere following an investigation that followed revelations by blogger Frank Parlato and the New York Times that women in Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), a secret "master/slave" group controlled by Raniere, were being physically branded on their pelvic area. Sarah Edmondson, a NXIVM leader in Vancouver, went public to the New York Times in October 2017. Raniere fled to Mexico, where he was arrested in March 2018.
Before trial, prosecutors secured guilty pleas from Lauren Salzman and her mother, NXIXM president Nancy Salzman, actress Allison Mack, Bronfman and bookeeper Kathy Russell. All later split from Raniere except Bronfman.
Lauren Salzman testified at Raniere's trial, detailing his cruelty, manipulation and control of all DOS and all things in NXIVM and its Executive Success Programs (ESP), which Raniere founded two decades earlier with her mother.
Raniere's sex trafficking convictions were directly tied to DOS, which he created in 2015. The group, also known as "The Vow," was comprised of tiers of "slaves" who were all and answered to "masters," none higher than Raniere. The clan's second-highest level included eight "first-line masters," including Lauren Salzman, Mack, actress Nicki Clyne and five other women, who conveyed Raniere's orders. Women in DOS told potential recruits it was a women's empowerment group — not mentioning it was run by a man.
To join DOS, members were told to supply blackmail material known as "collateral" in the form of naked photos or damning allegations about loved ones or themselves that were often untrue. Raniere's orders in DOS left women sleep-deprived, starved on extremely low calorie diets, wearing chains to symbolize collars and, in many cases, physically branded with Raniere's initials on their groins. Key to the sex trafficking case was that a number of women were given "assignments" to "seduce" Raniere.
Top members of DOS and NXIVM — including Raniere — were clustered around the Knox Woods townhouses in Halfmoon, While the case tried in the Eastern District, where DOS had a presence and where NXIVM flew plans in and out of airports, it was in Halfmoon where Raniere's most notorious crimes took place.
There, on Raniere's orders, a woman was confined to a room in her parent's Wilton Court townhouse for nearly two years -- all because she dared to kiss another man. She was the middle sister of three sisters from Mexico who became sexually involved with Raniere and had abortions. The older sister, who has a child with Raniere, remains loyal to him. The youngest sister fell prey to Raniere's sexual abuse since the age of 15. She later became his number one "slave" in DOS. At Raniere's instruction, she sexually abused a woman in DOS after Raniere blindfolded the victim, drove her to a townhouse in Knox Woods and strapped her to a table. She is no longer loyal to Raniere.
At trial, prosecutors showed evidence that Raniere had possessed sexually explicit photos of the youngest sister. Raniere's supporters and his legal team have argued that the FBI tampered with the photos. That assertion was not part of the appeal but is part of a separate argument Raniere filed for a new trial. The judge has yet to rule.
"Now that the appeal is final," Tully told the Times Union, "I look forward to addressing the demonstrable FBI tampering to the electronic evidence used against Mr. Raniere to convict him of heinous charges. Just as DNA has been used to prove someone innocent, the digital footprints of the tampering here is irrefutable and 100% provable."
Sullivan had argued to the Second Circuit that Bronfman was wrongly being punished for crimes in DOS when she was not a member of it. Under sentencing guidelines, Bronfman faced 21 to 27 months in prison and yet received 81 months, he noted.
At Bronfman's sentencing, Garaufis told the defendant she used her wealth as a “sword” to inspire fear and silence on behalf of Raniere. A former DOS member has said Bronfman tried to get her arrested on trumped-up charges.
"Bronfman principally argues that (Garaufis) committed procedural error by relying on a 'clearly erroneous finding'—namely that Bronfman was aware of, or willfully blind to, Raniere’s abuses in DOS," the summary order said. "We disagree."
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