Clare Bronfman was a self-described socially anxious multimillionaire with “patterns of self-loathing, insecurities, shame and fears” until she discovered NXIVM, a self-improvement group based near Albany, N.Y., in 2003.
But the group and its leader, Keith Raniere, transformed her, and Bronfman felt she became more than just an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor riches. Over the span of 15 years, Bronfman became more entrenched in NXIVM, joining the executive board, falsifying visa applications for foreign recruits, and using her deep pockets to fund the group, now widely referred to as a cult, and to scare off detractors with persistent lawsuits.
Even after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy to conceal and harbor aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of personal identification information – and after learning about Raniere’s secret group called DOS that was designed to coerce and groom women into having sex with him – Bronfman has stood by NXIVM’s leader.
“NXIVM and Keith greatly changed my life for the better,” Bronfman wrote to the judge before her sentencing.
On Wednesday, a judge for the Eastern District of New York sentenced Bronfman, 41, to six years and nine months in prison, a ruling that was notably longer than prosecutors had requested.
In a lengthy reading of her sentence, Judge Nicholas Garaufis said her “crimes were not committed in a vacuum” and said he could not ignore her “close relationship with Raniere,” who was convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking in June 2019.
“I don’t know how many other multimillionaires are out there, ready to devote the limitless resources at their disposal to supporting pyramid schemes run by dangerous criminals,” Garaufis said.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Bronfman’s lawyer, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., called the judge’s sentencing an “abomination” and said they plan to file an appeal.
“The sentence imposed today was grossly disproportionate to Clare Bronfman’s conduct and manifestly unfair, particularly in light of the fact that the court found that Clare had no knowledge of DOS and did not fund any sex cult,” Sullivan said.
NXIVM (pronounced Nex-e-um) was advertised as a group meant to empower its members and teach them how to overcome self-imposed fears and barriers. The courses cost thousands of dollars and attendees often included actors, entrepreneurs, filmmakers and wealthy intellectuals.
In 2017, the group became known as a “sex cult” after the New York Times published a story about DOS, a secretive women’s-only subgroup run by Raniere that involved branding women with his initials, forcing them to provide damaging collateral and coercing them into having sex with him. Recruiters of the group were called “masters” and new members were “slaves.”
NXIVM soon seeped into mainstream pop culture. In 2018, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. produced a podcast called “Uncover: Escaping NXIVM.” A nine-part docuseries called “The Vow” premiered on HBO in August.
Bronfman, who said she was unaware of DOS, was involved in other illegal activity inside NXIVM. Between October 2015 and January 2018, Bronfman recruited members of affiliated NXIVM groups from outside the United States and used falsified documents to help them obtain visas or other immigration documents, authorities said. For one of her recruits from Mexico, Bronfman submitted documents saying she hired the woman as a management consultant and paid her $3,600 a month. But Bronfman paid the woman only $4,000 for more than a year of work.
Prosecutors said that Bronfman also assisted Raniere in using his deceased partner’s credit card information to hide money and assets so he could avoid paying taxes on the funds.
“Defendant Bronfman twisted our immigration system to serve a reprehensible agenda, and engaged in flagrant fraud to the detriment of her victims and in the service of a corrupt endeavor,” acting U.S. attorney Seth D. DuCharme said in a news release. “With today’s sentence, she has been held accountable for her crimes.”
During her 15 years with the group, prosecutors estimate that Bronfman spent $116 million on NXIVM and Raneire, according to the Times. Bronfman used her seemingly endless well of money to fund aggressive and persistent lawsuits against ex-members and critics. Prosecutors said that she went so far as to hire private investigators to find private financial records belonging to judges, journalists, cult experts, and even Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Bronfman plead guilty in April 2019. Three other defendants, including former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack who was also a co-leader of DOS, also pleaded guilty to various charges. Raniere’s sentencing is set for Oct. 27. The others have not yet been sentenced.
During the four-hour hearing on Wednesday, nine victims who left NXIVM spoke directly to Bronfman, some pleading her to renounce Raniere and others tearfully recounting how Bronfman’s actions derailed their lives.
Barbara Bouchey, an ex-girlfriend of Raniere who was also Bronfman’s financial planner before leaving NXIVM, said that for the past few weeks Bronfman has used the threat of litigation and made-up criminal charges to intimidate her, the Times reported.
“You have not stopped damaging me,” Bouchey said, in tears. “Will you never stop?”
Susan Dones, another former member, implored Bronfman to denounce Raniere.
“I pray that you will take the claws of Keith Raniere out of you, and you will learn who Clare Bronfman really is,” Dones said, crying.
She added, “He is killing you.”
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.Turn on notifications
Great, you’re signed up!
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com