Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram liquor empire, has been sentenced to more than six years in prison for her role in a New York self-help organisation that United States federal prosecutors say engaged in forced labour, extortion and sex trafficking.
Bronfman, 41, pleaded guilty in April 2019 to two felony counts in connection to her involvement with Albany-based NXIVM (pronounced Nexium), an organisation led by New York businessman Keith Raniere that former members say was run as a cult.
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The group is alleged to have manipulated, enslaved and blackmailed its members as part of what federal prosecutors labelled a racketeering conspiracy. Bronfman joined the organisation in 2003 and provided financial backing to Raniere, prosecutors said.
She is the youngest daughter of the late billionaire philanthropist and former Seagram distillery mogul Edgar Bronfman Sr.
The heiress and five others, including Raniere, were indicted in March 2018. Bronfman is the first to be sentenced.
Raniere, found guilty at trial in June 2019 of sex trafficking, forced labour and other felonies, is due to be sentenced on October 27. The five other co-defendants pleaded guilty to various offences.
According to government witnesses, Raniere created a secret society to recruit women to be his sex-partner “slaves,” who were branded with a symbol that included his initials and were overseen by “masters.” He required the women to starve themselves and be available for him at any hour of the day or night. Those who failed were whipped with a leather strap, witnesses said at his trial.
The charges Bronfman had faced included racketeering, conspiracy to commit identity theft, encouraging and inducing illegal entry into the US and money laundering. She ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiring to harbour immigrants for financial gain and fraudulently using identity information.
Cult allegations surrounding the group had surfaced in news accounts since the early 2000s but the organisation received national attention from a 2017 New York Times newspaper article, highlighting experiences of people who had been members.
A nine-part HBO documentary released in 2020 further raised NXIVM’s profile and delved at length into the tactics employed by the group.
Bronfman’s sentencing suggests that Judge Nicholas Garaufis intends to impose stiff penalties for others convicted as supporters and enablers of the group.
Prosecutors had recommended a five-year sentence for Bronfman, significantly shorter than the six years and nine months that Garaufis handed down.