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Clare Bronfman, the heiress who helped finance NXIVM for over a decade, was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison for her role in the organization that’s become known as a “sex cult.” That’s nearly two years longer than federal prosecutors requested — and legal experts say Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis is sending everyone involved a strong message.
Bronfman, 41, was the first prominent member to be sentenced as she pleaded guilty to concealing and harboring aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of personal identification information. Prosecutors argued Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, used her wealth and social status to promote founder Keith Raniere’s “self-help” organization that really operated as a criminal enterprise.
“The judge is sending a clear message — that Bronfman’s wealth, status and influence could not protect her from justice and punishment by the court,” Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Silva Megerditchian tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Bronfman acted essentially as an ATM machine for the organization.”
Nine victims of NXIVM spoke at Wednesday’s emotional hearing about how their lives were destroyed by Bronfman, according to the New York Times, as she helped leave behind ruined marriages, careers and reputations. Bronfman has yet to denounce NXIVM, nor did she apologize to the victims.
“This has a huge effect on a sentencing judge,” Megerditchian says. “She never took accountability — in fact, she actually thanked her ‘fans’ in court. These actions are not looked at kindly by a judge who listened to victims talk about the harm Bronfman caused them. Taken all together: her wealth and influence, lack of accountability and the direct harm she caused the victims, the judge’s decision [is] understandable.”
Bronfman has repeatedly refused to disavow Raniere, who was convicted for multiple crimes including sex-trafficking and child exploitation offenses. Megerditchian believes this “absolutely” impacted Judge Garaufis’s decision.
“What is so fascinating is even with Bronfman facing the prospect of the ire of the judge and prosecutors, [she] still did not denounce the person who caused so much harm and pain to so many people. This absolutely played a large role in the judge’s sentence,” the SLM Law CEO says. “If she apologized and denounced the organization and Raniere, her sentence would have likely been greatly reduced.”
Raniere and four other leaders, including Smallville star Allison Mack, are awaiting sentencing. And there’s a lot to be learned from Bronfman’s hearing.
“The other defendants must take away from this that the judge is noting the behavior of the defendants inside and outside his courtroom. We must remember Ms. Bronfman used her endless wealth to hire lawyers and investigators to ruin the lives of NXIVM’s critics,” Megerditchian explains. “She never apologized nor denounced the organization. She seemingly did not cooperate with prosecutors. These other defendants should note the judge is taking the victims’ accounts seriously and believes their lives were ruined because of the actions of NXIVM and their supporters.”
Mack has become one of the most prominent faces of NXIVM as she was a first-line “master” in DOS, the secret women-branding sorority within the organization. During rituals, “slaves” were branded with Raniere and Mack’s initials while saying, “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.” Multiple victims have claimed she directed them to engage in sexual acts with Raniere.
“Allison Mack should be worried,” Megerditchian says. “Her defense counsel will likely advise her to apologize for her actions, to be contrite in court and to somehow make amends for her actions. Any cooperation with prosecutors will help her get more sympathy from the court.”
Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, but how much she’s working with the government is unclear. If Mack denounces Raniere and NXIVM, it may help her in the eyes of the judge.
“Explaining to the court she was brainwashed herself by the organization would help garner sympathy as well. Without these proactive steps, Ms. Mack will likely receive the same increased punishment Ms. Bronfman received — and possibly worse considering she was the face of the organization,” Megerditchian says.
Mack has expressed remorse in front of the court and took responsibility for recruiting women into NXIVM.
“I was lost,” she tearfully told the judge in April 2019, explaining she joined the group to “find purpose” as she was unsatisfied with her acting career. “I must take full responsibility for my conduct,” she said, per the New York Times.
During last year’s hearing, Mack did not directly address whether “slaves” were coerced into having sex with Raniere, but admitted to obtaining “labor and services” from two anonymous women. She apologized to those that she hurt through her “misguided adherence to Keith Raniere’s teachings.”
A sentencing date has not been set for Mack and the government has yet to issue a memorandum. Raniere will be sentenced on Oct. 27.