Who Is Clare Bronfman, the Heiress Behind the Cult NXIVM?

Culture

On September 30, a federal judge sentenced Clare Bronfman, the daughter of Seagram Company billionaire Edgar M. Bronfman, to 81 months (six years and nine months) in prison. For the better part of two decades, Clare, 41, was involved as an executive board member for NXIVM (pronounced “Nexium”), a group accused of being a sex cult. Clare was sentenced for her financial role in enabling the organization.

“I am troubled by evidence suggesting that Ms. Bronfman repeatedly and consistently leveraged her wealth and social status as a means of intimidating, controlling, and punishing” people who have been accused of being enemies of NXIVM, said Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn.

As The New York Times reported, Clare is the first defendant to be sentenced in the NXIVM investigation, following its leader Keith Raniere, who is in a federal jail now awaiting a sentence. In June 2019, Raniere was “convicted on all charges, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, human trafficking and multiple counts of racketeering,” per NPR.

“This trial has revealed that Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact a massive manipulator, a conman and crime boss of a cult-like organization involving sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion-compelled abortions, branding degradation and humiliation,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue told reporters at the time of Raniere’s conviction.

HBO’s documentary series The Vow follows the story of NXIVM and Raniere, who is known as “Vanguard” in the NXIVM circle. As the series notes, Clare and her sister, Sara, provided the money behind the NXIVM operation from the early 2000s until 2019, the year of Raniere’s conviction.

How did the Bronfman sisters get involved with NXIVM?

In 1998, Raniere and psychiatric nurse Nancy Salzman established NXIVM and called it a self-improvement multilevel marketing company that specialized in “Executive Success Programs” (ESP). Raniere asked to be called “Vanguard” and Salzman was called “Prefect.” In an October 2003 Forbes cover story, the women’s father, Edgar, expressed concern over his daughters’ involvement in the group. At that time Edgar said that Clare, then 24, had given the group $2 million at 2.5 percent interest. Clare denied this.

At the time of the Forbes story, Sara was 26 years old, and said she started taking NXIVM classes at the end of 2002 when her marriage ended. Soon, she started working for NXIVM full-time and became promoted to the rank of coach; the rankings at NXIVM are marked by sashes of different colors.

“I don’t know how much you know about my family,” she said. “But, coming from a family where I’ve never had to earn anything before in my life, [it] was a very, very moving experience for me to be awarded this yellow sash. It was the first thing that I had earned on just my merits.”

At her sister’s urging, Clare reportedly started taking courses around 2003. Edgar learned of his daughters’ new involvement and even took classes and became a devotee. But he became disillusioned when he saw that Clare had donated $2 million to Raniere and Salzman.

“Whether or not you want to believe me, I do not lie, and I love you two very much,” Edgar Sr. wrote to Clare, from whom he was estranged, in 2011, per Forbes. “Someone is not telling you the truth. Why don’t you try and figure out who that might be. Who has something to gain? Certainly not me. What would be my motive? Tons of love, even if not requited, Pops.” Clare and Edgar had a strained relationship until he died in 2013.

“He was afraid that Keith and Nancy were going to clean through his daughters’ money,” Barbara Bouchey, a former NXIVM leader and ex-girlfriend of Raniere, told Forbes.

In July of 2018, Clare was indicted on racketeering, identity theft, and money laundering charges. Sara was not charged or implicated in the case.

How involved were they—really?

Forbes reports that Raniere “took a close interest in Clare,” who had been a show jumper. She bought a house near NXIVM’s headquarters in Clifton Park, New York and a horse farm up the road. Raniere, who did not have a background with horses, trained her to be an Olympic equestrian.

“They encouraged her to compete because Keith thought if Clare made it into the Olympics he would be known as this great world coach, get fame and be exposed to the Olympian world,” Bouchey told Forbes. Her equestrian career didn’t last, but her involvement with NXIVM seemed to grow. Between the two sisters, it was Clare who became deeply involved in NXIVM, Bouchey told the magazine, “providing him with millions of dollars and paying for private air travel costing up to approximately $65,000 a flight.” Bronfman money also went toward suing NXIVM’s enemies. Forbes found in its reporting that during her involvement, Clare “hired 50 to 60 lawyers from about 30 law firms to pursue cases against nearly a dozen NXIVM critics.”

“The sucking sound on Clare’s bank account was coming from lawyers and litigation,” Rick Ross, a cult expert featured in The Vow, told Forbes. “If you go down the list of every time they hired a lawyer to advocate on their behalf or litigate on their behalf, $50 million is not out of the question.”

Why was Clare charged?

Clare was not a member of the women’s group within NXIVM, which branded its members with Raniere’s initials as well as those of Smallville actress Allison Mack, who also pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering in April 2019 and is awaiting sentencing.

But, the federal judge concluded in Septmber that Raniere would not have been able to carry out his crimes without Clare’s financial support.

“I don’t know how many other multimillionaires are out there, ready to devote the limitless resources at their disposal to supporting pyramid schemes run by dangerous criminals,” Garaufis said.

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