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Heiress Clare Bronfman Pleads Guilty in NXIVM Case

The infamous self-help group’s founder Keith Raniere will stand trial alone on May 7.

by Sarah Berman
Apr 19 2019, 10:17pm

Photo courtesy The Canadian Press

An heiress who used her trust money to bankroll the legal battles of an alleged cult leader has pleaded guilty to two criminal counts separated from her previous indictment for racketeering.

Clare Bronfman, heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, admitted to harbouring an illegal migrant for financial gain and fraudulent use of someone else’s identity. She agreed to pay $6 million instead of forfeiting a property that was used to “facilitate” her crime. She’ll be sentenced on July 25, and will likely face between 21 and 27 months of jail time.

Bronfman was the operations director and a primary financial contributor to NXIVM, a multi-level marketing empire that mostly sold expensive “executive success” courses.

The company’s founder Keith Raniere will face sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and racketeering charges in Brooklyn court next month in connection to a secret women-only “slave” group that allegedly blackmailed and branded women.

NXIVM’s bookkeeper Kathy Russell also pleaded guilty to visa fraud Friday, becoming the fifth person convicted in the NXIVM “sex cult” case. The new guilty pleas come two weeks after Smallville actress Allison Mack admitted to committing extortion and forced labour as a member of the secret “slave” group called DOS.

Bronfman was invited to join NXIVM by her older sister Sara, who attended a several-day “executive success” workshop for the first time in 2002. Years later Clare Bronfman left her career in competitive horse jumping to devote more of her time to NXIVM causes.

Together the Bronfmans bankrolled many of Raniere’s pet projects. They bought multiple properties in upstate New York, purchased a private jet that was at times used by Raniere and NXIVM president Nancy Salzman, a Trump Tower condo in New York City, announced a $20 million donation to launch a new “ethical” foundation, and spent tens of millions on various legal battles. In court documents, one lawyer estimated the sisters had spent at least $175 million by 2008.

Barbara Bouchey, a former girlfriend of Keith Raniere, told VICE she’s been dragged into 14 legal cases with NXIVM and the Bronfman heiresses, either as a defendant or witness. The Bronfmans personally sued her three times, at one point seeking $10 million in damages. She was also accused of breaching fiduciary responsibility, breaching client confidentiality, and colluding with adversaries to wrongfully defame. All of the charges against Bouchey have since been dismissed.

Bronfman and Russell had previously attempted to have their cases separated from Raniere’s, who was also accused of child exploitation and creating child porn. Their lawyers argued they were not part of DOS and would be unfairly associated with such serious allegations. In a memo federal prosecutors countered that Raniere had at least one naked image of Russell on his computer, and that Russell is pictured in the same explicit pose as other members of DOS and the 15-year-old prosecutors allege was sexually abused by Raniere.

The child exploitation charge was later dropped from the case because it happened in a different district of New York. A former prosecutor told VICE this may set up Raniere to face a second trial in the Northern District of New York.

“That’s about the worst thing [Raniere's lawyers] could do,” Krishna Patel, former prosecutor and current justice director at Grace Farms Foundation, told VICE. “The crime’s already proven because they have the images, and now they’re going to use this evidence to prove the racketeering… then they’ll have a whole separate trial.”

Raniere’s Brooklyn trial is scheduled to begin May 7.

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A previous version of this story misstated Bronfman pleaded guilty to racketeering, and that a nude photo of Bronfman, not Russell, was found in evidence.