Inside the head-spinning world of Clare Bronfman and the NXIVM cult

Toronto Star, Canada/September 18, 2020

B Rosie DiManno

A penny for your thoughts, Clare Bronfman?

How about $120 million or thereabouts?

That’s the estimated amount the heiress to the Seagram’s multibillion dollar fortune and daughter of the late Edgar Bronfman Sr., chairman of the Canadian-American Seagram liquor empire, lavished on a sex cult and its Svengali leader Keith Raniere.

Big purchase items: $65 million Raniere lost on the commodities market; $23 million on a Los Angeles real estate project Raniere cooked up; $5 million dropped into an irrevocable trust fund — slush fund — to pay the defense bills for Raniere and other subpoenaed witnesses; millions more spent on scores of lawyers, public relations firms and private investigators to chase down, legally intimidate and ruthlessly discredit any perceived threat to the sex-trafficking, racketeering, brainwashing secret society known as NXIVM, fronted as an organization for self-empowering and professional development of and for women only.

Endless devotion expressed by endless access to her inheritance as Bronfman spawn, leveraging her wealth and privilege.

But, of course, we know what Bronfman is thinking these days.

In sentencing documents filed by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office this week, Bronfman, heiress to felon, continues to gush over Raniere.

“NXIVM and Keith greatly changed my life for the better,” Bronfman effused in an August letter to the judge who will decided the 41-year-old’s fate later this month.

“I learned a sense of who I am beyond my faults and the tools of how to transform things I didn’t like about myself …. I started to embrace myself and turn outwardly to care for and help others.”

Bronfman doesn’t mention the slew of young women she recruited (according to the prosecution’s factum or sentencing memorandum), the women and girls she coerced into serving as domestic slaves, fraudulently securing immigration status for illegal non-citizens who were at her mercy, signing them to “employment contracts” to “earn” back the cost of their visas as indentured labour; phony scholarships; pressure applied to have Raniere’s perceived enemies criminally, and one under-age girl who was kept in her room for two years as punishment for an “ethical breach” against Raniere.

“Many people, including my own family, believe I should disavow Keith and NXIVM,” Bronfman wrote.

She won’t do it, turn on her spiritual guru, even with prison looming.

An “heir-head” in the cheeky headline parlance of the New York Post.

And, from his own jail cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center, awaiting sentencing in October, Raniere is clearly all-trusting of Bronfman, confident she remains in his thrall.

After Raniere was convicted last year on all charges — these were sex trafficking, racketeering, conspiracy and possession of child pornography — he made a call to his Mexican girlfriend, “Marianna,” mother to their son. Marianna tells Raniere that she’d just spoken to Bronfman the day before.

“How is Clare? She’s good?”

Marianna: “She’s very good. She’s very good with you.”

Raniere: “I don’t think her view of me has changed at all. If anything it’s gotten stronger.”

Bronfman, who’s been free on a $100-million bond, pled guilty earlier this year to charges of harbouring illegal aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of a deceased person’s identity. Had she gone to trial, she could have faced a 25-year sentence. Sentencing guidelines call for 21 months to 27 months behind bars. But the prosecution is seeking a custodial sentence of 60 months.

“Through her unwavering support of Raniere, financial and otherwise, Bronfman enabled him to perpetrate his crimes,” the district attorney states in his sentencing factum. “Bronfman remains loyal to and supports Raniere to this day.”

Adding: “Bronfman did not commit these crimes out of need; she is likely one of the most privileged and wealthy defendants to ever appear before the Court for sentencing. Bronfman committed these crimes to promote and support her co-defendant Keith Raniere and in doing so, she caused significant harm to others.”

It’s impossible to distill the length and breadth of the notorious sex cult’s activities into a few cogent paragraphs.

For more than a decade, from a bucolic compound outside Albany, N.Y., Raniere, self-styled as the “Vanguard” and “Grand Master” and “Divine,” claimed NXIVM could help people (women mostly) find enlightenment and inner peace through what was essentially a pyramid-scheme of expensive self-help courses, adherents urged to obtain ever high levels of accomplishment, charging up to $100,000 to his devotees.

The ring-leader attracted bold-face disciples, including a TV actress, the granddaughter of a European royal, the son of a Mexican president, a Hollywood filmmaker ,and, for just one less, Bronfman’s father, who quickly dismissed the whole thing as a “cult,” although unable to wean his youngest child off Raniere. In fact, after Raniere designated the senior Bronfman as an enemy of NXIVM and had one of his lieutenants hack into the tycoon’s email account, it was his daughter who installed the keylogging software on the father’s computer to enable the surveillance, according to court documents.

Clare Bronfman had risen to an elite level within the enterprise and the cash-cow behind lawsuits against NXIVM detractors, particularly after the organization was exposed by media investigations.

Within NXIVM there existed an inner circle of lieutenants, a master/slave club known as Dominus Sororium Obsequious (dominant over submissive), or DOS. Women in the group, also dubbed “The Vow,” agreed to a lifetime of obedience as slaves to their masters, a 500-calorie-a-day starvation — they were all ghastly thin, at Raniere’s insistence — promising to respond to his texts at all hours of the night, and, at times, to please Raniere sexually from a rotating harem.

DOS recruited and commanded the slaves, “first-line” slave thereupon recruiting their own cohort of lesser slaves. The slaves were required to provide collateral, including damning confessions about themselves and loved ones, often the stories — about having worked as prostitutes, or accusing family members of sexual abuse – spun out of thin air. They also had to turn over, to Raniere, all rights to their financial assets … as well, sexually explicit photographs and videos to be used as leverage against them if they tried to leave the cult or attempted to disclose its existence to outsiders.

Women were recruited into DOS from California, Mexico, Canada and overseas. Some of the women, as per Raniere’s instruction, had his initials branded into their pelvic area: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”

He compelled the slaves of his choosing into sexual acts with him, with photos and videos taken.

The ever adoring and accommodating Bronfman, a one-time highly regarded equestrian (the sport of rich girls), used a nonprofit foundation she owned called Ethical Science Foundation to sponsor visas for certain non-citizens who were recruited into the NXIVM community. When the cult’s existence became public knowledge via exposés by The New York Times and Esquire in 2017, Bronfman issued a statement characterizing DOS as a “sorority” that had “truly benefitted the lives of its members, and does so freely. I find no fault in a group of women (or men for that matter) freely taking a vow of loyalty and friendship with one another to feel safe while pushing back against the fears that have stifled their personal and professional growth ….”

Her lawyers argued in court that she didn’t know about the crimes being committed. Last month, the judge blasted Bronfman’s newest lawyer: “You’re claiming she wasn’t a party to the criminal enterprise. She was writing a lot of checks.”

It’s baffling how well-educated and worldly women fell under Raniere’s spell. He boasted about being a piano virtuoso, a mathematical genius with an IQ off the charts and a judo champion. He was none of those things. He is, as revealed in court and in an HBO documentary that aired this summer, perplexingly unimposing as opposed to charismatic, ridiculous in his commandments and designed group activities, which included using a volleyball court in the compound as epicentre of the cult’s social rituals.

Yet this is the creature that Bronfman, now 41, so crucially exalted and served and protected.

“I never believed I was supporting anything bad or wrong,” she wrote the judge.

Clare Bronfman is to be sentenced on Sept. 30.

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