A wealthy benefactor of Keith Raniere, the disgraced leader of a self-improvement group in upstate New York convicted of turning women into sex slaves who were branded with his initials, was sentenced to nearly 7 years in prison Wednesday in the federal conspiracy case.
Seagram’s liquor fortune heir Clare Bronfman will spend 81 months behind bars after her sentencing in Brooklyn federal court. Her lawyers wanted a judge to give her three years' probation instead of prison time, while prosecutors said she deserved at least five years behind bars.
Bronfman was also ordered to pay a fine of $500,000 and will pay almost in restitution to victim "Jane Doe 12."
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis gave Clare Bronfman the harsh sentence at a hearing lasting more than three hours and featuring emotional statements from several victims gathered in a courtroom under strict coronavirus safety protocols. The judge repeatedly scolded Clare Bronfman for standing by Raniere and his upstate New York organization, even after the evidence made clear she eventually became aware of his sex-trafficking scheme.
With that knowledge, she “could have distanced herself from him,” the judge said, his bench fitted with a sheet of plexiglass. “Instead, she chose to double down on her support of Raniere.”
Before hearing the sentence, the 41 year-old Bronfman had told the judge in a soft voice that she was thankful for the prayers of her supporters.
“It doesn’t mean I haven’t made mistakes because I have made mistakes,” said Bronfman without mentioning Raniere.
Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said Bronfman "twisted out 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."
Bronfman, 41, admitted in a guilty plea last year that she harbored someone who was living in the U.S. illegally for unpaid “labor and services” and that she committed credit card fraud on behalf of Raniere, leader of the group called NXIVM. Between Oct. 2015 and Jan. 2018, prosecutors said Bronfamn recruited individuals into NXIVM-related organizations, including one woman — referred to as "Jane Doe 12" — from Mexico.
The heiress submitted documents that stated she would pay the woman $3,600 a month, but in reality that woman only received $4,000 for more than a year of work, prosecutors said. Bronfman responded to the woman's pleas for a living wage by saying she would have to "earn" her visa by doing additional uncompensated work, according to prosecutors.
"While her fate in no way removes the trauma NXIVM's victims will likely continue to suffer, it does highlight the government's efforts to bring to justice all of those involved in a series of illegal acts carried out for the benefit of this organization," said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney.
In a letter to the court last month, Bronfman wrote that she “never meant to hurt anyone, however I have and for this I am deeply sorry.” Still, she said that she couldn’t disavow Raniere because “NXIVM and Keith greatly changed my life for the better.”
At trial, prosecutors told jurors the 60-year-old Raniere’s organization, NXIVM, operated like a cult whose members called him “Vanguard.” To honor him, the group formed a secret sorority comprised of brainwashed female “slaves” who were branded with his initials and forced to have sex with him, the prosecutors said.
Bronfman’s lawyers argued she deserved leniency because she had no direct involvement in the most disturbing allegations and has a health condition that could put her at greater risk for a coronavirus infection if incarcerated. But in court papers, prosecutors argued she deserved a serious punishment since, “There can be little doubt that Raniere would not have been able to commit the crimes with which he was convicted were it not for powerful allies like Bronfman.”
The defendant had long been affiliated with NXIVM, giving away tens of millions of dollars to bankroll Raniere and his program of intense self-improvement classes. She also paid for lawyers to defend the group against a lawsuit brought by its critics.
Barbara Bouchey, a former Raniere girlfriend who worked as a financial planner for Bronfman before quitting the group, described how Bronfman used lawyers to threaten litigation and seek false criminal charges. She claimed the harassment has continued even as the defendant was approaching sentencing.
“You’ve been under house arrest for two years, yet you have never stopped,” Bouchey said through tears. “Will you never stop?”
Along with Bronfman, Raniere’s teachings won him the devotion of Hollywood actresses like Allison Mack of TV’s “Smallville.” Mack also has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
As part of a plea agreement, Bronfman agreed to forfeit $6 million from a fortune prosecutors have said is worth $200 million.