It’s 4 p.m. on Good Friday and Clare Bronfman stands before a judge in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn already knowing her fate. She has copped a deal with prosecutors and will plead guilty to felony charges related to her role as an executive board member of Nxivm, a cult-like group that federal prosecutors describe as a deeply manipulative pyramid scheme that forced slave-like conditions onto some members. Some were allegedly even coerced to have sex with Nxivm’s founder, Keith Raniere.
But the rail-thin Bronfman, who turned 40 a few days earlier, frequently appears bewildered during the proceedings, wearing a white-and-blue scarf as she steals glances at the journalists and other onlookers who have filed into the courtroom. It’s as though she has the same question as most watching the sordid proceedings: How did an heiress to the multibillion-dollar Seagram’s fortune become central to what’s been called a notorious sex cult.
Bronfman, who has declined to speak to Forbes as she awaits her sentencing, agreed to forfeit $6 million to the federal government and to plead guilty to felony charges of harboring an illegal alien and the fraudulent use of a deceased person’s identity. If she had gone to trial, she could have faced 25 years in prison. Now she will likely serve a maximum of 27 months. Many observers see that as a sweet deal, considering she has poured approximately $150 million into Nxivm (pronounced: NEX-ee-um) since 2002.
As she addresses the judge, her voice, inflected by a proper English accent, is barely audible. The gallery of journalists lean in, cupping their ears to hear.
“Your honor, I was afforded a great gift by my grandfather and father,” Bronfman says. “With the gift comes immense privilege, and more importantly tremendous responsibility. It does not come with an ability to break the law; it comes with a greater responsibility to uphold the law. I failed to uphold the following laws set forth by this country, and for that I am truly remorseful.”
But it was that “great gift” of enormous wealth, close observers of their time with Nxivm say, that made the Bronfman sisters such irresistible targets of the group’s budding guru, Keith Raniere, who now stands trial for seven felony charges that include racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor. (Raniere, contacted through his lawyer, did not comment for this article. He denies all charges against him.)
Clare and Sara are the two youngest children of the late billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., who retired as president and CEO of Seagram Company in 1994. (Edgar Sr., who died in 2013, had five children from an earlier marriage, including Edgar Bronfman Jr., who took over the company from his father.) After Edgar Sr. and their mother, Rita “Georgiana” Webb divorced (for the second time) in the 1990s, the girls spent their childhood in England attending boarding school and visited their mother, who was living in Kenya. When Clare was in the tenth grade, she moved to a boarding school in Connecticut but dropped out the following year to be with her father on his estate in Virginia. She never finished high school, but became an accomplished equestrian.
In 2002, Sara, who has not been charged or implicated in this case, began taking classes at a self-improvement group’s headquarters near Albany, New York. Founded by Raniere and a trained nurse named Nancy Salzman in 1998, the center offered life coaching classes mixed with a little neuro-linguistic programming and group therapy techniques. Beginners usually took a five-day intensive course. Students called Raniere “Vanguard” or “Grandmaster,” and referred to Salzman as “Prefect.” Nxivm made audacious claims about its practices. Raniere said his “technology,” which he trademarked as the “Rational Inquiry Method,” had been found to abate symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, teach children how to speak up to 13 languages, and help college students increase their “moral decision capacity.”
Nonetheless, it had begun attracting boldface names. Among the 17,000 pupils reported to have taken Nxivm classes or workshops were Sheila Johnson, a cofounder of Black Entertainment Television; Antonia Novello, a former U.S. surgeon general; and Stephen Cooper, now CEO of Warner Music Group. (Sara and Clare also hosted a Nxivm event on an island owned by Richard Branson, who is a friend.)
Sara persuaded Clare, who was 23 and competing as a show jumper, to join, and soon they were paying Salzman as a personal coach. Clare bought a house near Nxivm’s headquarters in Clifton Park, New York, and a horse farm up the road so she could continue her training. Between her classes, she would compete in tournaments. Eventually, she ditched her equestrian sponsor, a German clothing company, and opted instead to wear a purple-and-black jacket emblazoned with “NXIVM.” As she started winning tournaments, rumors that she was part of a strange group in Albany began to spread in the show-jumping community.
Raniere began taking a close interest in Clare, former members say. With no history as an equestrian, he began to train Clare in an effort to get her on the U.S. Olympic team. “They encouraged her to compete because Keith thought if Clare made it into the Olympics he would be known as this great world coach, get fame and be exposed to the Olympian world,” says Barbara Bouchey, who was a leader within Nxivm and Raniere’s girlfriend before leaving the group in 2009. Bouchey says she remembers going with Salzman and Raniere to watch Clare compete. After making the U.S. team but failing to make the cut to compete in the Olympics in 2004, Clare eventually stopped competing.
In early 2003, his daughters’ new obsession drew the attention of Edgar Bronfman Sr., who enrolled in a five-day intensive course at Nxivm. “One of the reasons he took the workshop was because he watched his two daughters evolve and grow over the course of a few months,” Bouchey says. “He was intrigued.” Before long he, too, became a devotee, offering a glowing testimonial that referred to Salzman as “one of the most influential females in my life.” He said the class taught him “a new way of looking at the world, not based on any hokey philosophy, but based on truth,” he wrote in a testimonial at the time, which was provided to Forbes by Bouchey.
His enthusiasm didn’t last. The elder Bronfman became suspicious after he found out Clare had loaned Raniere and Salzman $2 million. He stopped attending classes. “He was afraid that Keith and Nancy were going to clean through his daughters’ money,” Bouchey says.
Then in 2003, Forbes published the first critical article about Raniere and the group, explaining that while it seemed to tap into the “high-profit fad of executive coaching,” critics also saw a “darker and more manipulative side” to Raniere. And the cover story included a whopping charge from Edgar Sr.: “I think it’s a cult.”
The article had immediate repercussions. Raniere, according to Bouchey, blamed Clare for the article, telling her she should have never told her father about the loan. Raniere became convinced that the senior Bronfman had hired a “double agent,” Bouchey says, to infiltrate Nxivm and gather negative information.
From that point forward, Raniere would claim that Clare had committed an “ethical breach”—a cardinal sin in the Nxivm universe, another former member explains. Her father’s scathing criticism, and the unwanted attention the article created, would be used as leverage against her for years to come, former members say.
When Catherine Oxenberg, a onetime actress on the 1980s TV show Dynasty, started taking classes at Nxivm with her husband and her daughter India in 2011, she remembered hearing that Clare had committed an “irreparable” sin against Raniere and Salzman. “They used that to indebt her to him for the rest of her life,” says Oxenberg, who wrote a book about her own family’s Nxivm experience.
Raniere took her father’s words and injected a sense of conspiracy, says Joseph O’Hara, who consulted for Nxivm at the time. Not only did her father speak badly of the man Clare believed would save the world, Raniere suggested that Edgar Sr., and possibly even the Birthright Israel Foundation started by her uncle Charles, had launched a plot to destroy Nxivm. In an email exchange dated January 6, 2011, which was submitted as evidence in Raniere’s trial, Edgar Sr. tried to reason with his daughter that he was not funding the group’s detractors.
“Whether or not you want to believe me, I do not lie, and I love you two very much,” Edgar Sr. wrote to Clare. “Someone is not telling you the truth. Why don’t you try and figure out who that might be. Who has something to gain? Certainly not me. What would be my motive?”
After his note, he signs off: “Tons of love, even if not requited, Pops.”
The relationship between Clare and her father would be strained until he died in 2013.
According to Steve Pigeon—who along with notorious fixer Roger Stone, worked for Nxivm as a political consultant—Raniere had convinced Clare that her family’s money was evil and that she had to purify it by spending it on ethical things, like Nxivm. Samuel Bronfman, Clare’s grandfather, had made the family’s fortune thanks to Prohibition, she was reminded. The Canadian whiskey distiller set up shop on the U.S.-Canada border and made millions as competition from U.S. distillers dried up.
Both sisters, according to former members, saw their financial support of Nxivm as a way to cleanse their fortune and leave their own philanthropic legacy. “The girls stepped into a role feeling they could make a difference in the world, and this became a very purposeful career path for them,” Bouchey says.
Over time, it was Clare who became more deeply involved with the organization. In court filings, prosecutors say Clare supported Raniere financially over the years by “providing him with millions of dollars and paying for private air travel costing up to approximately $65,000 a flight.”
A major chunk of their money—estimated at about $50 million, says Peter Skolnik, an attorney who battled Nxivm for years—also went toward suing Nxivm’s enemies—both real and perceived—to smithereens. After she quit show jumping, Clare described (on her now-defunct website) her role at Nxivm as focused on “areas of law” and “corporate ethics.” Over 15 years, it is estimated she hired 50 to 60 lawyers from about 30 law firms to pursue cases against nearly a dozen Nxivm critics, Skolnik says. Clare also funded two frivolous cases against AT&T and Microsoft, which alleged the companies infringed on Raniere’s intellectual property. (He lost and was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the company’s legal fees.)
“Nxivm was a litigation machine,” says Rick Ross, the well-known cult deprogrammer, who defended himself against an epic lawsuit levied by Nxivm that spanned 14 years. “The sucking sound on Clare’s bank account was coming from lawyers and litigation. If you go down the list of every time they hired a lawyer to advocate on their behalf or litigate on their behalf, $50 million is not out of the question.”
At least three people who defended themselves against Nxivm’s aggressive legal strategy—former member Bouchey, former Nxivm consultant Joseph O’Hara, and another of Raniere’s ex-girlfriends, Toni Natalie—eventually filed for personal bankruptcy protection, according to public court filings. Nxivm also unsuccessfully went after journalists who exposed Raniere’s secrets, suing James Odato, an investigative journalist at the Times Union in central New York, over his revealing coverage; Suzanna Andrews of Vanity Fair for her in-depth 2010 story; and others.
Clare Bronfman’s largesse also insulated Raniere from his poor investment schemes. Between 2005 and 2007, Raniere, who liked to boast that he had one of the world’s highest IQs, lost nearly $70 million in an ill-conceived corn commodity bet. According to Pigeon, who was working for Clare and Nxivm at the time, Raniere claimed the commodities market was controlled by the Illuminati, which he in turn claimed was managed by Edgar Bronfman Sr. Clare and Sara covered about $65 million of Raniere’s losses, Pigeon says.
In 2007, the Bronfman sisters spent over $26 million on a Los Angeles real estate project cooked up by Raniere to build and sell expensive homes in posh neighborhoods like Sherman Oaks and Hollywood Hills.
“By the end I realized Keith was in control,” says Pigeon, who worked for Nxivm from 2003 to 2011. “She was his devotee and had bought Keith hook, line and sinker.”
“Is [Raniere] being controlling? Well, a lot of times he is.”
Branding, Sexual Assault And Confinement
Beyond funding projects, the Bronfman wealth and social status played a crucial role in building Nxivm’s credibility, like when the sisters reportedly spent $2 million in order to persuade the Dalai Lama to visit Albany in 2009 and meet Raniere.
For years, it worked. But negative press began to leak out in local outlets, and it turned into a deluge that couldn’t be ignored by October 2017, when the New York Times published a story detailing the alleged horrors of a small, elite inner circle within Nxivm called DOS, which stands for dominus obsequious sororium, or imperfect Latin for “master over submissive women.”
Described as a female empowerment group within Nxivm, DOS allegedly mandated that its recruits, referred to as “slaves,” give their “master” nude photographs and other potentially damaging information as collateral, according to the Times story and later alleged by federal prosecutors and corroborated by witnesses in open court. Some women in DOS were branded, using a cauterizing pen, with Raniere’s initials. (Allison Mack, the Smallville actress and a longtime member of Nxivm and DOS, would later tell the New York Times Magazine that the branding was her idea.)
Some of the “slaves” were often ordered to have sex with Raniere to show their commitment to the group and were expected to follow their “master’s” orders and recruit others, prosecutors allege. The slaves were allegedly kept on strict, low-calorie diets and told to keep their pubic hair long in order to meet Vanguard’s preferred taste in women. The Times described a branding ceremony in which six members were asked to strip naked and lay on a massage table while chanting “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor,” as they were restrained. As a Nxivm member burned the initials into their skin, right below their pelvic bone, the smell of burning flesh was so overwhelming that some women wore surgical masks.
In response to the Times’ coverage, Raniere issued a statement to Nxivm members that denied his involvement with DOS and explained how he hired investigators to make sure DOS members weren’t being abused or coerced. “The picture being painted in the media is not how I know our community and friends to be, nor how I experience it myself,” he wrote. “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.”
In court filings, prosecutors allege wide-ranging forms of abuse within DOS. Mack, while pleading guilty to various racketeering charges in March, admitted to recruiting multiple women to become “slaves” and collecting their “collateral,” including explicit photos of themselves and videotaped confessions of various misdeeds. In its case against Raniere, prosecutors allege he sexually assaulted two underage girls and committed what sounds like acts of severe psychological torture, including allegedly telling a member to remain in her room—where she stayed for almost two years—in order to fix an “ethical breach” she committed against Raniere. Raniere, meanwhile, denies the abuse allegations and maintains that all of his relations with members of DOS were consensual.
“Is [Raniere] being controlling? Well, a lot of times he is,” said Marc Agnifilo, who is defending Raniere, during his opening statements at Raniere’s trial. “Ask the why. What is happening? Why is he doing this? And what you will see is this is something people signed up for.”
Prosecutors did not accuse Clare of being a DOS member, nor was she charged with sex trafficking. Clare was originally indicted on racketeering charges, identity theft, and money laundering and would have had to stand trial with Raniere and the other codefendants, including Mack, Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren, and longtime Nxivm bookkeeper Kathy Russell. But all the women took plea deals.
Yet court filings suggest that prosecutors were prepared to present evidence at trial that Clare was in a sexual relationship with Raniere and that she helped facilitate Raniere’s access to women.
During the first day of Raniere’s trial, a woman identified only as a former DOS member named “Sylvie” testified. She described how Clare had hired her, at 18, to help maintain her horse stables and brought her into Nxivm, paying for her classes. Eventually, she claims she was recruited as a DOS slave by another member, Monica, who instructed her to meet Raniere and do whatever he asked. When she met Raniere, she says he told her to lie on the bed while he performed oral sex on her.
Shortly after the Times article was published in 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation started interviewing victims and witnesses, and Raniere soon fled to Mexico. He stopped using his phone and communicated only through encrypted email, according to prosecutors. In February 2018, an arrest warrant was issued in the U.S., and Mexico’s federal police found Raniere hiding in a closet inside a luxury villa outside Puerto Vallarta with several women, including Mack, in March 2018.
Even as authorities closed in, Clare Bronfman remained loyal. On December 14, 2017, Clare published a statement on her website: “Some have asked me why I remain a member and why I still support Nxivm and Keith Raniere. The answer is simple: I’ve seen so much good come from both our programs and from Keith himself.”
Clare continued: “It would be a tragedy to lose the innovative and transformational ideas and tools that continue to improve the lives of so many.”
Over the next couple of months, Mack, the Salzmans, Russell and Clare Bronfman were indicted and arrested. Clare was released on a $100 million bond, secured by $25 million in cash from one of her trust funds and $25 million in real estate, including the island she owns in Fiji.
Clare’s loyalty to Raniere, and the group, at first seemed unbreakable after his arrest. According to public filings, Clare set up an irrevocable trust to pay Raniere’s and the other codefendants’ legal fees.
But eventually the family’s unified façade started to crack. By March 2019, with the pressure of the upcoming trial mounting, Nancy Salzman pleaded guilty to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy.
The reality and weight of the alleged misdeeds seemed to wear on Clare. During a hearing on March 27, Judge Nicholas Garaufis asked Clare if she had been consulting with the famous—and suddenly notorious—lawyer Michael Avenatti. (She had.) Only days before the hearing, Avenatti had been indicted on charges that he tried to extort $20 million from Nike. The judge also asked Clare if she had read reports that Mark Geragos, her lead attorney, was Avenatti’s unnamed co-conspirator. According to reports, Clare’s face turned pale and she fainted. Eventually, the judge adjourned the parties and told them to come back tomorrow.
The next day, Judge Garaufis asked if Clare was fully recovered. “I am. Thank you,” she said. “I honestly was just very scared yesterday.” Days later she accepted a plea deal.
Clare will return to court on July 25 to be sentenced. Raniere’s trial is ongoing. If he’s convicted he could serve life in prison.
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