Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram Co. liquor fortune, was sentenced to 81 months in prison for her role in securing female victims for the Nxivm sex cult founded by Keith Raniere.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis also imposed a US$6 million penalty and US$500,000 fine during Bronfman’s sentencing hearing Wednesday in Brooklyn, New York.
Bronfman, 41, gave millions of dollars to help bankroll the cult, which branded sex slaves and forced them into engaging in sex acts, according to prosecutors. She pleaded guilty last year to harboring an undocumented immigrant who had traveled to the U.S. on a forged work visa, and to identity theft for helping Raniere use a dead woman’s credit card.
Raniere was convicted last year of multiple charges, including racketeering, sex trafficking, alien smuggling and fraud. The government is seeking a life sentence for him. Bronfman and four other Nxivm leaders pleaded guilty before Raniere’s trial. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term for Bronfman, the first of the group to be sentenced.
The heiress once had a promising career as an equestrian before she joined Albany, New York-based Nxivm in 2003. The organization claimed it was a self-help group for women, helping members overcome their fears and find fulfillment. But prosecutors said Nxivm was actually a pyramid scheme that charged members thousands of dollars for courses and urged them to sign up others.
There was also a more sinister side. According to government witnesses, Raniere created a secret society to recruit women to be his sex-partner “slaves,” who were branded with a symbol that included his initials and were overseen by “masters.” He required the women to starve themselves and be available for him at any hour of the day or night. Those who failed were whipped with a leather strap, witnesses said at his trial.
To become part of his inner circle, Raniere required followers to provide damaging information about friends or family -- even nude photos, witnesses said. Bronfman served on Nxivm’s executive board.
“For years, Bronfman leveraged her colossal wealth to recruit individuals, often women with no legal status in the United States, into Nxivm-affiliated organizations,” prosecutors Tanya Hajjar and Mark Lesko said in a sentencing memo.
Bronfman helped fund Raniere’s criminal defense, private investigators and public relations firms to help discredit those who criticized the group, prosecutors said, noting that the heiress “remains loyal” to Raniere.
Last month, Bronfman explained to the judge why she still supports Raniere.
“Many people, including most of my own family, believe I should disavow Keith and Nxivm, and that I have not is hard for them to understand and accept,” Bronfman wrote. “However, for me, Nxivm and Keith greatly changed my life for the better.”
Before the sentence was announced, the judge heard separate statements from nine women who said they were victims of Bronfman and Raniere. Kristin Keeffe, who said she has a 13-year-old son with Raniere, called Bronfman a “megalomaniac.”
Bronfman’s plea agreement with the U.S. didn’t include a recommended term. She had sought probation, but prosecutors said she deserved prison because her sentence needed to reflect both the seriousness of her crimes and the “severe and devastating effects” she had upon her victims.
Nxivm’s followers included Allison Mack, an actor on the TV series “Smallville” who has pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy.
The case is U.S. v. Raniere, 18-cr-204, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn)