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Clare Bronfman pleads guilty in alleged sex cult case

Clare Bronfman outside federal court in Brooklyn in

Clare Bronfman outside federal court in Brooklyn in January. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman  pleaded guilty to two charges linked to her involvement with the Albany-based alleged sex cult NXIVM in Brooklyn federal court on Friday, but neither plea related to accusations of sex-trafficking lodged against group leader Keith Raniere.

The plea by Bronfman, a top official in the group, as well as another co-defendant, left cult guru Raniere alone to face trial next month on charges that NXIVM’s insiders ran a pyramid scheme under the guise of a self-help organization, using fraud and extortion to recruit and brainwash women, forcing them to work and have sex with him.

Under her plea deal, Bronfman was allowed to plead to conspiracy to harbor an "illegal alien" for using false statements to get a work visa for a woman who worked for her and NXIVM without pay; and identity theft for helping Raniere use a dead woman’s credit cards. 

Bronfman, 40, who faces a recommended sentence of 21 to 27 months in prison under advisory federal guidelines and also agreed to forfeit $6 million, told U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis that she was “truly sorry.”

“Your honor, I was afforded a great gift by my grandfather and father,” said the heiress, worth an estimated $200 million. “With the gift comes immense privilege and more importantly tremendous responsibility. It does not come with an ability to break the law. It comes with greater responsibility to uphold it. … I am truly remorseful.”

“I aimed to do good in the world and help people,” Bronfman added. “However, I have made mistakes.” 

Kathy Russell, another NXIVM leader and the group’s bookkeeper, also pleaded guilty Friday, to visa fraud for lying on a visa application to get a worker into the country. 

All five of the women charged with Raniere last year have now pleaded guilty.

Raniere, known in the group as “Vanguard” and “Master,” faces charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, including allegations that some women were branded with his initials, and that he sexually exploited children and engaged in sex-trafficking.

Although Bronfman did not plead guilty to racketeering, officials said the sentencing guidelines she faces are the same. Prosecutors declined to comment Friday on whether Bronfman would cooperate and testify against Raniere, but defense lawyer Mark Geragos said she would not.

“I don’t think she ever in a million years … expected that she would end up pleading guilty to two felonies,” he told reporters. “This is her first step in taking responsibility, and also providing a bit of financial recompense if you will for anyone who feels aggrieved.”

Bronfman is scheduled to be sentenced July 25. 

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