A woman who used her family’s enormous wealth to fund the legal battles of a now-convicted sex trafficker is officially going to prison.
Clare Bronfman, heir to the Seagram liquor fortune, was sentenced to 81 months of prison time for her role in immigration and identity fraud schemes on Wednesday—more than double the recommended sentence. She pleaded guilty to harbouring a migrant for financial gain and fraudulent use of identification in April 2019.
Bronfman is the first person to be sentenced in the criminal case against NXIVM, a disgraced self-help company founded by Keith Raniere. Raniere was known to his followers as “Vanguard” and was convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, and other crimes last year. He’ll be sentenced in Brooklyn next month.
Raniere’s company NXIVM, pronounced Neks-ee-um, started selling expensive weekslong leadership training in 1998. The classes used group pressure, conditioning, boundary testing, and military-style exercises to foster a culture of conformity and loyalty to its founder. The company’s business model relied on constant multi-level marketing style recruitment and its members spread outlandish claims about Raniere’s genius and talents. Experts have called it a system of indoctrination with all the hallmarks of a personality-driven cult.
Bronfman joined NXIVM in 2003 because she wanted to use her family’s money to make the world a better place. “I never believed I was supporting anything bad or wrong,” she wrote in a letter to the judge last month.
But in a federal courtroom on Wednesday, victims said she was a callous abuser who used her wealth and connections as weapons. She spent as much as $50 million on legal battles against perceived enemies, according to a civil lawsuit filed in January. She also financed spying and intimidation, witnesses alleged at Raniere’s trial.
Bronfman was arrested on racketeering charges in 2018 and released under house arrest after posting $100 million for bail. She admitted to helping Raniere use a dead woman’s credit card and conspiring to keep underemployed followers in the U.S. illegally as part of her plea. She did not admit to racketeering.
Bronfman was convicted of one count of harbouring a migrant, but in a sentencing memo prosecutors cited evidence of six NXIVM followers who were ensnared by bogus immigration claims. The heiress offered work visas and jobs, according to the memo, but did not follow through with pay or proper documentation once the workers arrived in the country.
Prosecutors said the workers were desperate and dependent on Bronfman, yet she “had no intention of providing her victims with a living wage.”
One of the Jane Does who moved to Albany from Mexico in 2015 was offered $3,600 per month to work as a consultant for a NXIVM venture, but only received $4,195 total over more than two years. As part of her plea deal, Bronfman agreed to pay the woman $96,605.
Factored into Bronfman’s sentence is her continued loyalty to Raniere, also the creator of a slavery-themed blackmail scheme called DOS. In August Bronfman wrote that “it did not make sense” to disavow Raniere or DOS because she “was never told about anything sexual or damaging of any nature.”
DOS was pitched as a secret women’s mentorship program that required new members to submit “collateral” in the form of nudes or damaging information. Women who submitted collateral to hear the pitch then pledged a lifetime vow of obedience to the woman who recruited them, often a trusted friend. Raniere’s role as “Grandmaster” directing the group of “masters” and “slaves” was concealed from everyone but his closest circle of fixers. Some of the women were branded with Raniere’s initials, and some were given “assignments” to seduce Raniere under threat of collateral release.
When former NXIVM recruiter Sarah Edmondson first went to the New York Times with these allegations in 2017, Bronfman defended the “sorority”: “It’s not for any of us to judge how they, or anyone else, choose to advance their lives and values,” she wrote in a statement on her website.
Bronfman flew to Vancouver and pressed police to bring charges against Edmondson when she left the company, according to prosecutors. In a recorded statement played in court Edmondson said Bronfman’s continued allegiance to Raniere is concerning.
“I’m always going to be looking over my shoulder if that’s the case,” she said. “Because as soon as she gets out of prison, she will use her money to continue to attack people—to continue to use her money as a weapon.” Other victims who gave statements described unpaid labour, indentured servitude, and efforts to cover up mental breakdowns.
The heiress is one of about a dozen members of NXIVM who stand behind the convicted leader. A group of loyalists, including Battlestar Galactica actress Nicki Clyne, showed their support by dancing outside the jail where Raniere is being held earlier this summer. Ex-members called out the performance for piggybacking on Black Lives Matter and justice reform movements.
Bronfman wrote that she is “truly sorry for the harm” her decisions have caused. “I take full responsibility for my actions and I will respect and honor whatever punishment you feel is just,” she wrote in August. Her lawyers asked for probation but no prison time.
Four more NXIVM leaders including Smallville actress Allison Mack have pleaded guilty to various charges and are awaiting sentencing.
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