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Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman charged with conspiracy in probe of secretive ‘self-help’ group

Clare Bronfman, center, leaves federal court Tuesday in Brooklyn. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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The heiress to the massive Seagram’s liquor fortune was arrested Tuesday as part of an ongoing federal criminal case involving a secretive self-help group authorities have described as an abusive sex-cult-like organization.

Clare Bronfman, daughter of the late former Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman Sr., was charged with three others in a superseding indictment related to the activities of Nxivm, an Albany-based self-help organization that has attracted a following among the wealthy and famous. Last spring, founder Keith Raniere was charged with a variety of federal crimes because of his alleged sexual and financial control of the group’s female members.

Bronfman, a member of Nxivm’s executive board and alleged financial backer of the organization, was charged with conspiracy to commit identity theft and racketeering conspiracy, according to the indictment. On Tuesday, Bronfman pleaded not guilty to the charges in a Brooklyn federal courtroom, the Associated Press reported. She was released on house arrest after agreeing to post a $100 million bond.

“As alleged, this long-running conspiracy crossed multiple avenues of criminal activity, which included, among other things, electronic monitoring; identity theft; extortion; victim smuggling; and illegal trafficking of a victim after a period of unlawful confinement,” William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York field office, said in a statement following the new charges. “The details of these alleged crimes become more and more grim as we continue to dig deeper into the conduct of this organization and its intended mission.”

Bronfman’s attorney Susan Necheles did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a statement Tuesday to the AP, the defendant’s lawyer argued that the charges against her client were “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.”

Necheles added: “We are confident that Clare will be exonerated.”

Mixing New Age spirituality, celebrity members, deep-pocketed backers and allegations of sex trafficking, the Nxivm case has drawn intense scrutiny. As The Washington Post reported in March, federal authorities charged founder Raniere — known to his followers as Vanguard — with coercing sex from adherents. They went to bed with the leader out of devotion or fear he would reveal secrets they had entrusted to Raniere and other Nxivm members, the government claims.

Raniere is also accused of forcing women under his spell to undergo a bizarre ritual in which his initials were allegedly burned into his followers with a cauterizing pen.

Allison Mack, a former “Smallville” actress, was also indicted in the earlier round of charges.

Both Raniere and Mack have been charged with sex trafficking, and both have denied the allegations.

Bronfman, a former competitive equestrian, has long been associated with Raniere and Nxivm. The government alleges she and the organization’s leader “conspired to commit identity theft arising out of a scheme to obtain the email usernames and passwords of perceived enemies and critics of Raniere in order to monitor their electronic communications,” according to a release.

The heiress is also accused of participating “in an identity theft conspiracy involving the use of credit card and banking information belonging to one of Raniere’s sexual partners after her death in November 2016.”

At Tuesday’s court hearing, Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled Bronfman was a flight risk because of her incredible wealth, which totals about $200 million and includes a private jet and a share in a $40 million island she owns in Fiji.