When Clare Bronfman discovered a self-help group called Nxivm in 2003, she was struggling with social anxiety, unable to accept her identity as the daughter of a famous billionaire. Nxivm gave her a sense of purpose, she wrote in court papers.
In the course of the next 15 years, she became part of the group’s executive board, even as Nxivm faced mounting criticism that it was an abusive cult that coerced women into sexual slavery. Tapping her fortune, Ms. Bronfman unleashed an army of lawyers and investigators to intimidate Nxivm’s critics.
On Wednesday, a federal judge sentenced Ms. Bronfman, 41, to six years and nine months in prison for her role in Nxivm.
Ms. Bronfman was the first defendant to be sentenced in the Nxivm investigation, which has shattered the sunny facade of an organization that purported to help people achieve their personal goals through “executive success” workshops. Its leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted at trial in June 2019 of racketeering, sex trafficking, fraud and other crimes.
In an emotional hearing on Wednesday, nine victims of Nxivm spoke about how their lives had been destroyed by Ms. Bronfman. Some of them said Ms. Bronfman sued them relentlessly for years after they left Nxivm and even persuaded local prosecutors to initiate criminal charges against them.
At times, the hearing felt like an intervention. Several of the women looked straight at Ms. Bronfman, sitting silently at the defense table, and begged her to denounce Mr. Raniere. Ms. Bronfman told the judge last month that she could not disavow Mr. Raniere because she still believed in him.
“I pray that you will take the claws of Keith Raniere out of you, and you will learn who Clare Bronfman really is,” said one of the victims, Susan Dones, through tears.
“He is killing you,” she said.
The group, which was headquartered near Albany, became known as a “sex cult” after trial testimony showed that Mr. Raniere had groomed a group of women in Nxivm to be his sexual partners. During a secret ritual, the women were branded with his initials near their pelvis while saying, “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”
Before Mr. Raniere’s trial, Ms. Bronfman and four other leaders within his inner circle pleaded guilty, including top Nxivm recruiter and former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack.
Ms. Bronfman, who was not a member of the secretive women’s group, pleaded guilty to two charges related to identity theft and immigration fraud — charges that seem divorced from the headlines surrounding the Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) case.
Still, prosecutors have said that Mr. Raniere could not have committed his crimes without Ms. Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune. Her late father, Edgar Bronfman, was a billionaire businessman and philanthropist.
She became a veritable A.T.M. for Mr. Raniere. Prosecutors estimate that Ms. Bronfman spent at least $116 million on Nxivm. She funded the organization’s lawsuits and secured patents for Mr. Raniere’s inventions.
Her wealth and influence created an atmosphere of fear for anyone who tried to leave or criticize Nxivm. In a lawsuit last year, former Nxivm members accused Ms. Bronfman of waging “terroristic legal campaigns” as retaliation against them.
She hired a company to try and get private banking information for any perceived enemy of Nxivm, including journalists, judges who oversaw Nxivm litigation and Senator Chuck Schumer, according to prosecutors.
Alan Feuer contributed reporting.