NXIVM defendant, Seagram’s heiress collapses in court after Avenatti revelation

Albany Times-Unioon/March 27, 2019

By Robert Gavin

New York -- Seagram's liquor heiress and NXIVM defendant Clare Bronfman collapsed at a pre-trial hearing in Brooklyn federal court Wednesday after a judge questioned her lawyer about whether she was being secretly represented by embattled celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti.

Bronfman, 39, fainted and was caught by Mark Geragos, another celebrity attorney representing her, who has been identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in an extortion case announced Monday against Avenatti, the former lawyer for adult film star Stormy Daniels, who has sued President Donald Trump. The account of the courtroom activity was provided by two people who were present.

According to a letter filed by prosecutors that is under seal, according to the source, Avenatti and Geragos met with the government last week to discuss the case of Bronfman, the operations director for NXIVM, the Colonie-based organization now at the center of a racketeering case in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

Both the government and Geragos confirmed the meeting in court, the source said, adding that U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis was "extremely irritated at being kept in the dark." Bronfman never informed the judge she was being represented by Avenatti, the person said.

Bronfman is charged along with NXIVM co-founder Keith Raniere; Lauren Salzman; television actress Allison Mack; and Kathy Russell, a longtime bookkeeper for NXIVM. Another codefendant, NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman, has pleaded guilty.

The person said the sequence of events started when Kathleen Cassidy, an attorney for Bronfman, raised a question that Cassidy said involved attorney-client privilege and sensitive matters – and asked the judge to clear the room. The source said several reporters objected and the judge refused to close the courtroom.

Garaufis had been attempting to question Bronfman at the bench about whether she had retained Avenatti. Donna Newman, a lawyer for Bronfman, objected to her client answering the question, saying it was a matter of attorney-client privilege. Cassidy requested a sidebar conference at the bench.

A five-minute break followed. As Bronfman walked back to the defense table, she started "wobbling and staggering on her feet," the person said. She looked pale and her knees were buckling, the person said, noting that Geragos then caught his client and put her down in a chair.

EMS and firefighters arrived and treated Bronfman in a separate room, the person said.

She did not return to court. The hearing was set to continue Thursday afternoon. She left the courthouse unaided, with Geragos. Jury selection in the trial will be early next month with opening arguments scheduled for April 29.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged Avenatti with trying to shake down as much as $25 million by threatening Nike with bad publicity. In a separate case, he faces charges he embezzled a client's money to pay his own expenses, and was charged with extortion and bank and wire fraud in separate cases in New York and California.

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