Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram Co. liquor fortune, was sentenced this week to 81 months in prison and $6.5 million in penalties for her role in luring female victims for the Nxivm sex cult founded by Keith Raniere.
“She used her incredible wealth and attempted to use her social status and connections not only to support Nxivm’s work but also as a means of intimidating, threatening and exacting revenge,” U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said Wednesday in Brooklyn, New York. The sentence Garaufis imposed was longer than the five years requested by prosecutors, and he ordered her immediately remanded into federal custody.
Bronfman, 41, gave at least $100 million to help bankroll the cult, which branded women and forced them to engage 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, one of five Nxivm leaders who pleaded guilty before Raniere’s trial, was the first of them 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,” branded with a symbol that included his initials and 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.
During the hearing Wednesday, 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.”
Before she was sentenced, Bronfman, who had requested no prison time, apologized to the judge. “I’m immensely grateful and privileged because, all over the world, people are praying for me because they know my goodness. It doesn’t mean I haven’t made mistakes because I have.”
Explaining why he imposed a longer prison sentence than prosecutors requested, Garaufis said he was skeptical of Bronfman’s claims of true remorse. The judge cited her continued vows of loyalty to Raniere despite the harrowing testimony about Nxivm during the Raniere trial.
While Bronfman’s income was $26 million to $30 million a year, she withheld payments to women hired to work for Raniere and Nxivm, forcing them to beg for money to live, according to the judge. She also gave Raniere $67 million to invest in commodities, but he ended up losing all the money.
Garaufis grew visibly angry after Bronfman on Wednesday turned to address one victim, who said the heiress lured her into a forced-labor scheme. The judge questioned the sincerity of Bronfman’s apology to the woman, saying “I saw what you did and I’m just speechless.”
After Raniere was arrested in 2018, she created a $5 million fund for his defense and a total of $13.8 million for all six defendants charged in the case, the judge said.
Last month, Bronfman explained in a letter 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.”
Bronfman was also Raniere’s “accomplice in the effort to intimidate and silence detractors,” by hiring private investigators and public relations firms to help discredit those who criticized the group, Garaufis said. Two victims who testified Wednesday said the legal onslaught forced them into bankruptcy.
One victim, Barbara Bouchey, told the judge Wednesday she was earning $1 million a year as a financial planner in Saratoga, New York. But a Bronfman-financed legal claim cost Bouchey $14 million, and she said she was arrested on a false extortion charge leveled by the heiress.
Nxivm’s followers included Allison Mack, an actor on the TV series “Smallville” who has pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy.