The Justice Department has started an investigation into a self-described self-help group in which women were branded with a symbol containing its leader’s initials, several people contacted as part of the inquiry said.
Those people said that agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation had recently contacted or questioned them about the group, which is called Nxivm. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because officials asked them not to discuss the inquiry, which appears to be at an early stage.
In a related move, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York is expected to soon recommend possible changes in how state regulators review complaints against doctors, a spokesman said. The decision follows the disclosure that health department officials declined to act on complaints about two doctors affiliated with Nxivm, including one who reportedly used a surgical device to brand women. Inquiries into those two doctors are now underway, a spokesman for the governor said.
John Marzulli, a spokesman for the office of the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which is reportedly leading the inquiry, said he could neither confirm nor deny whether an investigation into Nxivm, which is based in Albany, was underway.
The developments follow an October article in The New York Times that disclosed how some women who joined a secret sorority within Nxivm were branded with a symbol that incorporated the initials of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere.
Women were also told that compromising information they had provided to join the sorority, such as naked photographs, would be publicly released if they disclosed its existence. The sorority revolved around “master-slave” relationships, former Nxivm members said, in which women faced punishments, including physical ones, for not following a master’s order.
Since the late 1990s, over 16,000 people have enrolled in courses offered by Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um), which the group says are designed to bring about greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers.
Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s Executive Success Programs, and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become devoted followers of Mr. Raniere. Critics and former members have described the group’s practices as cultlike.
Mr. Raniere, whose followers refer to him as “Vanguard,” urges women to follow near-starvation diets of 500 to 800 calories a day to achieve the body shape he finds appealing. Some women who have followed that diet have stopped menstruating and lost hair, according to former Nxivm members.
Mr. Raniere, 57, recently left the Albany area and traveled to Mexico, where Nxivm has hundreds of followers, to stay with an adherent in Monterrey. Former associates said Mr. Raniere had never previously gone to Mexico. A former Nxivm member in Mexico said that Mr. Raniere was seen recently in Monterrey, though his current whereabouts is not known.
Mr. Raniere and other Nxivm officials did not respond to requests for interviews or repeated emails. A lawyer who represents the group, Robert D. Crockett, also did not respond to written questions, including whether federal or state officials had contacted Nxivm.
In recent weeks, Nxivm’s leaders have posted statements on the website of Executive Success Programs, contending that the secret sorority was not connected to Nxivm and that Mr. Raniere was unaware of its practices.
Nxivm also stated that it has conducted an independent investigation of the sorority and determined that the women in it are healthy and happy.
”Our experts, a forensic psychiatrist of international repute, psychologists and ex-law enforcement say members of the sorority are thriving, healthy, happy, better off and haven’t been coerced,” Mr. Raniere said in a statement. The group did not name the experts.
Several former Nxivm members said that senior women in the group, including the daughter of its co-founder, were involved in the sorority and branding ceremonies. In addition, a text message sent by Mr. Raniere indicated that he was aware that women were being branded with a symbol that contained his initials.
“Not initially intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute,” he wrote in that message. “(if it were abraham lincolns or bill gates initials no one would care.)”
Nxivm did not respond to requests for the report of its independent investigation or the names of the experts involved. But an actress, Catherine Oxenberg, said a well-known forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, recently contacted her and said that Nxivm had hired him to evaluate her 26-year-old daughter, India Oxenberg. .
In May, another doctor who examined Ms. Oxenberg’s daughter told her that the severe diet she was following had jeopardized her ability to have children. Ms. Oxenberg has tried without success to convince her daughter, who has followed Mr. Raniere for years, to leave Nxivm.
In response to written questions, Dr. Dietz said he has examined only one female participant in Nxivm, though he declined, citing issues of patient confidentiality, to confirm that it was Ms. Oxenberg.
He added that his initial examination of the woman had not found evidence of “brainwashing” and that she appeared “happy,” though troubled by what she described as false media reports about the group.
Dr. Dietz said that Nxivm had not hired him to examine matters related to the secret sorority, stating it was his understanding that the group “is not a Nxivm entity but rather a private sorority of women.”
In recent months, Nxivm has also attempted to hire lobbyists in Albany to represent it before politicians and regulators there. It has also sued or sought to bring criminal charges against former members.
For example, the Mexican branch of Nxivm recently sued a former member there who quit the organization after 13 years upon hearing about the secret sorority and the branding.
The man, Toni Zarattini, said that when he asked other Nxivm members in Mexico about those practices he was told to stop doing so. “There is no problem here, all is good, don’t ask more questions and don’t say a word to anyone else,” Mr. Zarattini said he was told.
Nxivm’s Mexican affiliate is headed by Emiliano Salinas, a son of that country’s former president. Its ranks include members of Mexico’s ruling elite, including a daughter of the publisher of one of the country’s biggest newspapers, Reforma. Several women who belong to the group in Mexico have traveled to Albany, where they were branded, two former Nxivm members said.
Asked about the practice, Mr. Salinas reiterated that the sorority was not affiliated with Nxivm and added that it was important to “respect the decisions” members make in their private lives.
He added the company had sued Mr. Zarattini because he and others had tried to extort Nxivm by asking for money in exchange for not revealing information, an assertion Mr. Zarattini has denied.
Earlier this month, a Mexican judge dismissed the lawsuit against Mr. Zarattini, saying it was based on inadequate evidence. A lawyer for Nxivm said the group has another action pending against him, but lawyers for Mr. Zarattini said they were unaware of it.
His friends “are in some ways kidnapped; their minds, their emotions have been taken for ransom,” said Mr. Zarattini, who was kidnapped and brutalized a decade ago by a drug cartel. “I can’t allow these secrets to keep going because that contributes in some way to that.”
William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.
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