For years, Seagram’s liquor empire heiress Clare Bronfman dedicated her time—and millions—to NXIVM as its operations director and one of its largest donors, going to extreme lengths to protect the self-help group and its leader.
But on Wednesday, the 41-year-old was sentenced to 81 months in prison for her role in the purported cult that branded women and manipulated them into master-slave relationships.
“I’m immensely grateful and privileged that people all over the world are praying for me because they know my goodness,” Bronfman said just before she was sentenced for conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification. “It doesn’t mean I haven’t made mistakes, I have made mistakes.”
Prosecutors had asked the judge to give her a 60-month sentence, arguing she had shown continued loyalty to NXIVM’s founder Keith Raniere and made “obsessive” attempts to investigate and intimidate possible critics of NXIVM.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis believed she deserved even more than that. He gave her nearly seven years in prison, a $500,000 fine, and $96,605 restitution to be paid to one of the victims.
“Ms. Bronfman’s crimes were not committed in a vacuum,” Garaufis said. “They were committed in connection with her role in NXVIM and her close relationship with Raniere, and I believe that it would be inappropriate for me to consider them divorced from that context.”
Bronfman, wearing a dark face mask with a flower pattern, appeared shocked by the sentence. She was taken into custody and will be housed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where Raniere is being held.
“I am shocked, relieved, and surprised—this is a meaningful win for those of us who were directly victimized by Clare Bronfman,” Ivy Nevares, a former long-time NXIVM member, told The Daily Beast. “None of us were expecting the Court to surpass the prosecution’s recommendation... At long last, justice is being served.”
Before the sentencing, nearly a dozen former members gave victim statements in court, detailing how Bronfman enabled Raniere and a purported self-help group that ruined their lives.
Barbara Bouchey, a former high-ranking member who left in 2009, said Bronfman threatened her with legal action, and she feared that “Clare’s stalking of me is not over,” according to the Times Union. Toni Natalie, Raniere’s ex-girlfriend, told the judge that Bronfman “was a pivotal part in trying to destroy my life.”
Another former member, Susan Dones, said, “In my opinion you’re a predator. You should feel shame, self loathing... I pray that you will take the claws of Keith Raniere out of you, and you will learn who Clare Bronfman really is.”
In a stunning move, Kristin Keeffe, who has a 13-year-old son with Raniere and worked for Bronfman in NXIVM’s legal department for a decade, said she saw Bronfman “mentally descend over several years into a dangerous megalomaniac.”
Keeffe, who left the group in 2014, said Bronfman helped Raniere dodge child support payments, and reduced her salary and billed her rent for a NXIVM townhouse after Keeffe protested a legal attack on Bouchey.
“She was trying to psychologically break me,” Keeffe said, noting that she struggled on a $13,000 annual salary while Bronfman “rode a $1 million horse, bought a 6,500 square foot mansion and flew in her $11 million private jet.”
Nevares also said in a statement that the 41-year-old “never earned the power she was given—not by title, skill, or performance. And in return, she used her power to abuse others, especially those of us in Raniere’s ‘inner circle.’”
Bronfman was one of five women charged alongside Raniere in 2018, including alleged NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren, a top lieutenant; Smallville actress and alleged second-in-command Allison Mack; and the group’s bookkeeper, Kathy Russell. While all five pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, Salzman was the only one to testify against Raniere.
Bronfman is the first of NXIVM’s inner circle to be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court, and her sentence marks another step in the unraveling of the once ultra-secretive “self-help” organization founded by Raniere in Albany, New York, over two decades ago.
Raniere, 60, was convicted last June of seven offenses including sex trafficking for founding a criminal enterprise that allowed him to have sex with underage girls, force women he impregnated to have abortions, and command his “slaves” to illegally monitor his enemies. He is facing a life sentence.
NXIVM began in 1998 and amassed an estimated 17,000 members, luring them in with $5,000 workshops that promised the skills to promote a path to “greater self-fulfillment.” Prosecutors, however, say it was an illegal pyramid scheme, sucking in recruits who were made to recruit others. It relied heavily on Bronfman’s unlimited bank account, too.
To prove her loyalty to NXIVM, Bronfman allegedly helped Raniere steal email passwords from “perceived enemies,” laundered money to help a non-citizen enter the U.S. in the name of the program’s success, and paid off debts Raniere had racked up on a dead girlfriend’s credit card.
“Bronfman spent millions of dollars of her inherited fortune on Raniere’s endeavors. She pursued Raniere’s accusers and critics by dispatching powerful teams of lawyers, private investigators, and public relations firms to attempt to discredit them and dredge up information that could be used to undermine their claims,” a prosecutors’ memo to Garaufis said earlier this month, claiming that even now “Bronfman continues to support Raniere.”
The memo detailed how Bronfman provided millions to NXIVM and Raniere’s various investment interests, including giving him $67 million because he “wished to invest in the commodities market… with no expectation that he would ever be in a position to pay her back (he didn’t).”
Investigators began to look into the organization in 2017 after former members came forward stating they were lured into a master-slave program named DOS under the guise of it being a secret women’s empowerment group. In reality, they claimed, the women were forced to have sex with Raniere, blindly obey their “masters,” and brand themselves with his initials near their crotch with a cautery pen—without anesthesia. Allegations of the sinister sorority, which allegedly began in 2015, were also exposed in a bombshell New York Times report.
In addition to sending former members threatening letters to stop speaking out about NXIVM, the heiress hired a psychologist, private investigators, and a public relation firm to “rehabilitate the public image of DOS,” but made no attempt to contact any of the women who had spoken out about their abuse, the sentencing memo said.
“The only reason for Bronfman and Raniere to send these letters to sex trafficking victims was to attempt to threaten and intimidate them, efforts which succeeded,” the memo states.
In her own sentencing memo filed last month, Bronfman claimed that she didn’t know the disturbing details relating to DOS until after Raniere’s arrest in 2018 and his subsequent trial in which women detailed the manipulation and fear they endured at the hands of Bronfman.
In another letter to the court, she stressed that she “never meant to hurt anyone, however I have and for this I am deeply sorry.” But despite her remorse, Bronfman said she wouldn’t disavow Raniere because “NXIVM and Keith greatly changed my life for the better.”
FBI assistant director-in-charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement after Wednesday’s sentencing that Bronfman will “now have more than six years behind bars to contemplate that sentiment, and decide once and for all if it’s as easy to accept as she once believed it to be.”
Duncan Levin, one of Bronfman’s lawyers, told The Daily Beast that they plan to appeal the sentence. “We respect the Court’s decision but disagree that her conduct merited this sentence,” he said.
On Tuesday, Bronfman’s legal team also revealed in a letter to Garaufis that the Seagram’s heiress has a “possibly serious liver ailment,” thus putting her at “heightened health risk” amid the coronavirus pandemic.