US & World

Heiress Charged With Supporting Sex-Trafficking Operation

Clare Bronfman (left) leaves federal court in New York on Tuesday after being charged in connection with NXIVM. An heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune, Bronfman was released on a $100 million bond.
Clare Bronfman (left) leaves federal court in New York on Tuesday after being charged in connection with NXIVM. An heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune, Bronfman was released on a $100 million bond.
Mary Altaffer/AP

A New York liquor heiress was arrested on Tuesday as part of an ongoing investigation into a group accused of coercing women into sex.

Clare Bronfman, 39, is an heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune. She is also an executive board member of NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um).

Despite billing itself as a community "guided by humanitarian principles," the organization had a secret group that recruited and enslaved female followers under the pretense of mentorship, prosecutors contended.

Those women were allegedly ordered to sleep with the organization's founder, Keith Raniere, branded with a cauterizing pen and punished with paddles and in cages.

Bronfman used her riches to bankroll the organization, spending millions on private air travel for Raniere and lawyers who sued critics, authorities say.

"The details of these alleged crimes become more and more grim as we continue to dig deeper into the conduct of this organization and its intended mission," FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney said in a statement on Tuesday.

In the face of mounting accusations from ex-followers and critics, Bronfman remained loyal to Raniere. "I know him to be a man dedicated to the betterment of the lives of others, and most importantly for me, he is a dear friend," she wrote on her website last year.

Raniere was arrested in Mexico in March.

Bronfman allegedly conspired with him to monitor the emails of their perceived enemies by stealing usernames and passwords.

She is also accused of taking part in charges — for clothing and shoes and massages – on the credit card of one of Raniere's deceased sexual partners, and luring a person into the United States illegally for her own financial gain.

The daughter of Edgar Bronfman, a philanthropist and the late CEO of Seagram's beverage company, she disagreed with him about the intent of NXIVM.

"I think it's a cult," Edgar Bronfman told Forbes in 2003.

According to the article, "Though he once took a course and endorsed the program, he hasn't talked to his daughters in months and has grown troubled over the long hours and emotional and financial investment they have been devoting to Raniere's group."

She wrote last year that no abuse or coercion took place in NXIVM. "It's not for any of us to judge how [female followers], or anyone else, choose to advance their lives and values," she said.

Her lawyer Susan Necheles said in a statement that "Clare Bronfman did nothing wrong ... [Charges] against Clare are the result of government overreaching and charging an individual with crimes just because the government disagrees with some beliefs taught by Nxivm and held by Clare."

Clare Bronfman pleaded not guilty in federal court on Tuesday and was released on a $100 million bond.

Prosecutors argued that she was a flight risk because of her immense wealth, and U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis wanted to be sure she returned to court. She was placed under house arrest and must wear an ankle monitor.

The judge restricted her from speaking with fellow NXIVM followers before a hearing on Friday.

Bronfman is among six people arrested in connection to the group. Among them is Allison Mack, the-35-year-old actress known for her role as Chloe in the television series Smallville. Prosecutors accuse her of recruiting female members for sex and labor. She was arrested and charged in April.

Tuesday's updated indictment charges all six defendants with identity theft, extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

If convicted, the heiress faces up to 20 years in prison.

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