A multimillionaire heiress to the Seagram liquor empire has been arrested and charged with running a criminal enterprise, as part of proceedings against members of the Nxivm “sex cult”.
The group garnered headlines for an initiation ritual that reportedly included branding founder Keith Raniere’s initials on women, attempts to recruit celebrities, and accusations by prosecutors that members were turned into sex slaves for Mr Raniere.
Clare Bronfman, 39, a British-educated aspiring Olympic show jumper, was ordered by a judge in Brooklyn to be held under house arrest, on a $100 million bail.
Her lawyer, Susan Necheles, entered a not guilty plea on her behalf.
"Clare Bronfman did nothing wrong. Nxivm was not a criminal enterprise but instead was an organization that helped thousands of people," she said.
"The 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.
“This is not how things should be done in America.
“We are confident that Clare will be exonerated.”
She will appear in court again on Wednesday, before federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis. Also appearing will be her fellow defendants Mr Raniere, arrested in Mexico in March, and Smallville actress Allison Mack, a senior figure in the group, who was detained in April.
They will be in the dock along with Miss Bronfman and three more women arrested on Tuesday – co-founder Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren, and their bookkeeper, Kathy Russell.
Miss Bronfman’s arrest marks a dramatic turn in her 15-year association with the organisation.
She was first introduced to Nxivm, which sells itself as a self-help and empowerment group, through her sister, Sara.
The sisters even managed to convince their father Edgar to join, and he initially praised the group.
He rapidly grew disillusioned, however – reportedly when he learnt that Miss Bronfman had lent the organisation $2 million.
In 2003 he told Forbes magazine that the organisation was “a cult” and he wished his daughters had never got involved.
“I think it’s a cult,” he said, adding that he was troubled about the “emotional and financial” investment in Nxivm by his daughters, to whom he hadn’t spoken in months.
Miss Bronfman rose through the ranks, and in the summer of 2010 organised a seven-day celebration of Mr Rainere’s 50th birthday. The retreat, held in upstate New York, cost up to $2,120 and was billed as “the prototype and blueprint for a new era of civilized humanity.”
Miss Bronfman, the event coordinator, wrote that “the very purpose of VWeek is to get the chance to experience a civilized world… [and] craft for ourselves a more fulfilling, purposeful life.”
In November of the same year, Vanity Fair reported that as much as $150 million was taken out of the Bronfmans’ trusts and bank accounts and handed over to Nxivm.
The sums included $66 million allegedly used to cover Mr Raniere’s failed bets in the commodities market, $30 million to buy property in Los Angeles and around Albany, $11 million for a 22-seat private plane, and millions more to support a barrage of lawsuits across the country against Nxivm’s enemies.
Miss Bronfman’s father died in December 2013, aged 84. Her British mother Georgiana had divorced their father in 1983, and is now married to actor Nigel Havers.
Miss Bronfman, according to the charges announced on Tuesday, allegedly committed identity theft of at least two women and illegally brought another woman into the country.
In 2017, Miss Bronfman defended Mr Raniere and Nxivm, calling him "a man dedicated to the betterment of the lives of others."
"There have been many defamatory accusations made and I have taken them seriously," she said.
"Determining the truth is extremely important to me, and I can say firmly that neither Nxivm nor Keith have abused or coerced anyone."
Indictments unsealed on Tuesday also added 10 counts of racketeering to the sex trafficking charges already pending against Mr Raniere and Miss Mack, who prosecutors say helped Mr Raniere recruit sex slaves.
Miss Mack pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour last month.
Mr Raniere’s lawyers also denied the allegations, adding that the 57-year-old was being persecuted by the "morality police."