When it comes to the charges against alleged cult leader Keith Raniere, there’s a lot to wrap your head around. Yes, women were branded with his initials, and at least one woman VICE spoke to said she was blackmailed with naked photos and damaging information that she submitted as “collateral”—to prove she’d never talk about a secret group. And yes, Smallville actress Allison Mack is accused of co-founding and recruiting women into the group. But all this is only one relatively recent chapter of the Raniere story.
In the case of Raniere’s 20-year-old company Nxivm, which was first accused of being “cult-like” way back in 2003, many of us have been left with a nagging question: how come it took so long for all this dark stuff to come to light? Sure, the branding and blackmail came relatively late in the timeline, but based on US prosecutor statements and reporting by the Albany Times Union, Raniere was allegedly abusing young women and girls long before the FBI came after him. (The allegations against Raniere have yet to be tested in court.)
Part of the reason Raniere’s alleged abuses have stayed under the radar so long is his company’s history of aggressive lawsuits ex-members say were used to silence and intimidate whistleblowers. Over 15 years, the company launched countless legal fights in Canada and the US for everything from breach of confidentiality agreements and defamation to criminal mischief, hacking, and extortion.
Many of those lawsuits have been made possible thanks to two of Nxivm’s wealthiest and highest-ranking members, Clare and Sara Bronfman. As heiresses to the (Canadian) Seagram’s whisky fortune, the sisters have funnelled “untold millions” into what one ex-member facing legal action called a “litigation machine.”
VICE has attempted to contact the Bronfmans, but has not been successful.
The Bronfmans first joined Nxivm in 2002, a time when the organization was mostly focused on selling “executive success” training to aspiring entrepreneurs via multi-level marketing. Then 23, Clare left her career in competitive horse jumping and moved to Albany with her sister to be closer to Raniere. Sara, then 25, was “desperately looking for some purpose in her life,” one family friend told Vanity Fair.
Barbara Bouchey, who was formerly a financial planner to the Bronfmans and on Nxivm’s executive board until 2009, says she’s witnessed the torment caused by the Bronfman-powered litigation machine both from the inside, and later as a target of several suits. She says she spent over $700,000 defending herself in court, lost over 70 percent of her financial planning clients, and filed for bankruptcy in the process—which she says took until 2017 to pay off. All cases against her were eventually dropped or dismissed as of last year.
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Bouchey was an insider during one of Nxivm’s first legal battles against cult expert Rick Allen Ross. Ross was sued for publishing parts of Nxivm’s course materials on his website, along with analysis by two renowned doctors. Nxivm students sign non-disclosure agreements, and sharing class materials breached those contracts, the suit alleged. Nxivm also sued the students who handed over the materials for copyright and trade secret violations and one of the psychiatrists for his “defamatory” evaluation of the company’s “cult-like elements.”
Ross was represented pro-bono for 14 years before a judge finally dismissed the case last year. “I can tell you I went for many long walks with Keith about his lawsuit, and what I would say to him is I think it’s a waste of money, I think it’s ridiculous,” Bouchey told VICE. “His response was always that he wanted his name exonerated. He wanted Rick Ross to write an apology, to say he was wrong—that he wasn’t a cult leader nor was Nxivm a cult.”
Bouchey says her own legal trouble started soon after she and eight women confronted Raniere about “unethical practices and abuse of his leadership status to sexually manipulate women” in 2009. She decided to resign, and maintained 17 boxes of the Bronfman's financial records. Bouchey says Nxivm and the Bronfmans went after her because her records contained emails and documents she says “would not be favourable to them.”
Since 2009, Bouchey says she’s been dragged into 14 legal cases with Nxivm and the Bronfman heiresses either as a defendant or witness. She stood before eight judges in four different states, accused of breaching fiduciary responsibility, breaching client confidentiality, and colluding with adversaries to wrongfully defame. The Bronfmans personally sued her three times, at one point seeking $10 million in damages. Clare also went to five government agencies to file a criminal complaint of extortion, based on Bouchey’s resignation letter, which requested Raniere return a $1.67 million loan.
“It was a very effective strategy,” Bouchey said of the never-ending lawsuits. Her business struggled, her credibility was seemingly ruined, and Nxivm supporters actively spread false rumours of her guilt. Looking back, Bouchey told VICE she thinks she was tormented in part because Nxivm wanted to make an example out of her—to show what would happen to anyone who tried to blow the whistle. “Anyone who left Nxivm was terrified to talk to me,” she said.
That theory held true for Vancouver actress Sarah Edmondson, who revealed shocking branding and blackmail allegations to the New York Times last year. Edmondson told VICE Clare personally flew to Vancouver to file a criminal mischief complaint against her after she left Nxivm. Vancouver police did not pursue the charge.
Though the sisters have reportedly lost at least $100 million to Nxivm business ventures over the years, the Bronfmans appear to remain loyal Raniere. US authorities say Clare followed Raniere to Mexico last year, and she defended the accused sex trafficker in a December statement on her personal website. “I’ve seen so much good come from both our programs and from Keith himself. It would be a tragedy to lose the innovative and transformational ideas and tools that continue to improve the lives of so many,” she wrote.
Clare confirmed in her post she is not part of the secret “sorority” that branded women and allegedly ordered them under threat to have sex with Raniere. She also rebutted allegations that women were coerced into giving damaging information and nude photos. “I find no fault in a group of women (or men for that matter) freely taking a vow of loyalty and friendship with one another to feel safe while pushing back against the fears that have stifled their personal and professional growth,” she wrote. “It’s not for any of us to judge how they, or anyone else, choose to advance their lives and values.”
Raniere will meet a federal judge on April 27 at his preliminary hearing for sex trafficking and forced labour charges. An ongoing FBI investigation into Nxivm’s business dealings could still see other Nxivm insiders meet the inside of a courtroom—whether or not that includes the Bronfmans is, uh, not for me to judge.
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