US heiress charged with aiding ‘branding cult’

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An heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune has been arrested in a probe into a self-improvement organisation accused of branding some of its female followers and forcing them into sex.

Clare Bronfman, 39, a daughter of the late billionaire philanthropist and former Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman Sr, surrendered to the FBI and pleaded not guilty to racketeering charges.

She was freed from custody following a late-afternoon court appearance in New York where she pledged to post a 100 million dollar (£76 million) bond to ensure her return to court.

US District Judge Nicholas Garaufis set the high amount after prosecutors said Bronfman was a flight risk and hearing she has a net worth of roughly 200 million dollars (£152 million), including a stake in an island resort in Fiji.

Clare Bronfman leaves federal court in Brooklyn
Clare Bronfman leaves federal court in Brooklyn (Mary Altaffer/AP)

A former competitor in international equestrian showjumping competitions, Bronfman is accused in an indictment of taking a number of steps to help NXIVM’s founder and leader, Keith Raniere, control members of the upstate New York group, including identity theft, interception of electronic communications and money laundering.

She was part of an “inner circle” of loyalists who “committed a broad range of serious crimes from identity theft and obstruction of justice to sex trafficking, all to promote and protect Raniere and NXIVM”, US attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement.

Raniere was arrested in Mexico this year and taken to the US to face charges that he, along with an adherent, the TV actress Allison Mack, coerced followers into becoming slaves to senior members.

In a statement, a lawyer for Bronfman, Susan Necheles, called the charges “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”.

“We are confident that Clare will be exonerated,” she said.

Also arrested on Tuesday were Nancy Salzman, who was the organisation’s longtime president, her daughter Lauren Salzman, and a former bookkeeper for the group, Kathy Russell. All three were released on bail without entering pleas.

Despite criticism for years by ex-followers who called NXIVM a cult and a pyramid scheme, the organisation’s intense self-improvement classes had, at one point, earned it thousands of adherents, including some with Hollywood ties.

They included Nicki Clyne, an actress who appeared on Battlestar Galactica, Bronfman’s sister Sara, a son of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and India Oxenberg, a daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg.

In an indictment, prosecutors said Mack, who played a teenage friend of Superman in the CW network’s Smallville, helped Raniere recruit women to a secret sub-society within NXIVM whose members were branded with a surgical tool with a symbol that resembled his initials.

Women were expected to be subservient to “masters”, prosecutors said, including giving in to demands for sex.

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