For more than a decade, Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, devoted her life to supporting a self-help group called Nxivm. She quit her equestrian career, moved to Nxivm’s headquarters in upstate New York and poured millions of dollars into the group.
And yet, as she awaits sentencing by a federal judge, Ms. Bronfman, 41, has not wavered in her loyalty to Nxivm’s leader, Keith Raniere.
“Many people, including most of my own family, believe I should disavow Keith and Nxivm, and that I have not is hard for them to understand and accept,” Ms. Bronfman wrote in a letter last month to the judge. “However, for me, Nxivm and Keith greatly changed my life for the better.”
On Wednesday, Ms. Bronfman will be the first defendant to be sentenced in the Nxivm case, which led to criminal charges against six of the organization’s leaders and prominent members. After Ms. Bronfman and four others pleaded guilty, Mr. Raniere was the only defendant who went to trial, resulting in his conviction in June 2019 for racketeering, sex trafficking and other crimes.
The United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which investigated Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um), has asked the judge to sentence Ms. Bronfman to five years in prison, saying Mr. Raniere could not have committed his crimes without powerful allies like her.
Ms. Bronfman’s lawyers have argued she should not go to prison at all. She genuinely believed Nxivm was a force for good and had no idea about the human trafficking and sexual abuse within the group, they said. She pleaded guilty to two crimes in connection with her role at Nxivm, involving identity theft and immigration fraud.
The long-awaited hearing will be the first opportunity for a large number of Nxivm’s victims and former members to speak to the judge, both by video and in person. Ms. Bronfman’s sentencing on Wednesday will also be the first major hearing inside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The case became an international media spectacle in part because of Nxivm’s high-profile followers, which included Hollywood actors, corporate executives and professional athletes. The Dalai Lama once spoke at a Nxivm event. A top recruiter for the organization was Allison Mack, an actress on the television series “Smallville,” who has since pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy.
Nxivm, based near Albany, N.Y., was marketed as a workshop that could help successful people overcome their fears and find self-fulfillment. Since Mr. Raniere co-founded the program in 1998, around 18,000 people have taken its courses, which cost thousands of dollars apiece.
Nxivm’s recruiters looked for “trust fund babies” and others who struggled with low self-esteem, according to a lawsuit filed against the organization. The workshops purported to use scientific methods invented by Mr. Raniere, who was promoted as the smartest man in the world.
But Mr. Raniere’s trial laid bare the dark sides of Nxivm. Within the organization, prosecutors said, Mr. Raniere had created a secret group of women who were branded with his initials and groomed to be his sexual partners, leading to Nxivm’s reputation as a “sex cult.”
The women were called “slaves” and referred to Mr. Raniere as “master” or “grandmaster,” according to trial testimony. They were ordered to undergo near-starvation diets and respond to Mr. Raniere’s unexpected text messages at all hours. Women who had failed at their duties were whipped with a leather strap.
The women were regularly required to hand over “collateral” that could act as blackmail, including nude photographs or videos in which they falsely accused their spouses of abuse.
Nxivm generated renewed attention after the debut last month of an HBO documentary series called “The Vow,” which chronicled how a group of Nxivm members escaped the organization, using hours of fly-on-the-wall video footage of Mr. Raniere.
One of Mr. Raniere’s most important enablers, prosecutors said, was Ms. Bronfman.
Ms. Bronfman joined Nxivm in 2003 after hearing about it from her sister and father, Edgar Bronfman, the former chairman of the Seagram Company. She had dropped out of high school to become an equestrian, with dreams of qualifying for the Olympics. She was always shy and lacking in self-confidence, her friends said in letters to the court.
One of her cousins wrote to the judge that Ms. Bronfman suffered from “poor little rich girl” syndrome, and that insecurity about her wealth drove her to seek a sense of purpose through Nxivm. The workshops taught her to develop friendships with humans, not just horses, her lawyers said.
But as Ms. Bronfman became fully immersed in Nxivm, prosecutors said, Mr. Raniere was able to tap a seemingly limitless war chest of cash.
Prosecutors said Ms. Bronfman used her wealth to hire lawyers, private investigators and public relations firms to discredit critics of Nxivm. She tried leveraging her family’s connections to persuade law enforcement officials to investigate Nxivm’s enemies, efforts that prosecutors described as “obsessive.”
She even targeted her own father. After he called Nxivm a “cult” in a 2003 article in Forbes, Ms. Bronfman installed malware on her father’s computer, giving Mr. Raniere access to her father’s email account for years, prosecutors said.
Ms. Bronfman’s lawyers responded in court papers by calling the episode a “family dispute” that “remains unproven.”
In total, Ms. Bronfman poured more than $100 million of her inherited wealth into funding Nxivm’s legal battles and other projects. She gave Mr. Raniere $67 million to invest in the commodities market, which he never repaid, prosecutors said.
Her lawyers have insisted that she did not know about the secret women’s group within Nxivm, saying the case has left “the very unfortunate misimpression that she knew about and funded a sex cult.”
But she still rushed to defend Mr. Raniere after a New York Times article in 2017 exposed the group’s secret branding ritual. In a public statement, Ms. Bronfman said the women had all freely taken vows of loyalty and friendship. (Mr. Raniere’s lawyers have said the group was intended to be a sorority of powerful women who could someday influence elections, and that all of the sexual relationships had been consensual.)
When Ms. Bronfman and Mr. Raniere found out that The Times was about to publish the article, they drafted letters that were sent by lawyers to Nxivm members, threatening criminal prosecution, prosecutors said.
In April 2019, Ms. Bronfman pleaded guilty to identity theft and an immigration violation in connection with her role in Nxivm.
Prosecutors accused her of using false statements to secure visas for young women from Mexico who were recruited to work for Nxivm. She also conspired with Mr. Raniere to commit identity theft by using the credit card and bank account of his dead girlfriend, which kept assets out of Mr. Raniere’s name and allowed him to evade income tax requirements.
At the time, many Nxivm victims were frustrated by the guilty plea, believing the charges minimized Ms. Bronfman’s influence within the organization. Ms. Bronfman’s lawyers have said she was unfairly targeted by prosecutors because of her wealth.
Ms. Bronfman’s sentencing comes a month before Mr. Raniere’s sentencing, scheduled for Oct. 27.
In a submission to the court this month, Mr. Raniere’s lawyers said he had no remorse because he maintains his innocence, accusing the government of misconduct and saying he deserved a new trial.
Prosecutors have asked the judge to sentence him to life in prison.
The sentencings for the other defendants have not yet been scheduled.
Ms. Bronfman is one of many Nxivm members who have maintained their admiration for Mr. Raniere. During the pandemic, his followers have regularly organized dance parties outside the Brooklyn jail where he has been held.
Mr. Raniere seemed well aware of Ms. Bronfman’s continued devotion to him. In November, during a phone call in prison to a woman with whom he shared a son, Mr. Raniere asked about Ms. Bronfman, according to a government court filing.
“I don’t think her view of me has changed at all,” Mr. Raniere said. “If anything, it’s gotten stronger.”