NEW YORK — An heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune and three other people were arrested on Tuesday in connection with the investigation of a self-improvement organization accused of branding some of its female followers and forcing them into unwanted 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 where she pledged to post a $100 million bond to ensure her return to court.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis set the high amount after hearing prosecutors label her a flight risk and learning she has a net worth of roughly $200 million, including a stake in an island resort in Fiji.
Bronfman, who appeared in court wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt, didn’t comment as she left a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. She was to remain under house arrest following her release.
A former competitor in international equestrian show jumping competitions, Bronfman is accused in an indictment of taking a number of steps to help NXIVM’s founder and leader, Keith Raniere, exercise control over 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,” U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement.
Raniere was arrested in Mexico this year and was brought to the U.S. 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 Tuesday were Nancy Salzman, who was the organization’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 organization’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 Bronfman; a son of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari; and India Oxenberg, a daughter of “Dynasty” actress Catherine Oxenberg.
In an indictment, prosecutors say 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 by way of 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.
The arrest of Bronfman, who has long been affiliated with NXIVM, wasn’t a surprise. At a court hearing in June, a judge rejected an attempt to get Raniere released on $10 million bail paid for by Bronfman after prosecutors labeled her a co-conspirator.
In earlier court filings, the government detailed how Bronfman gave away tens of millions of dollars of her fortune to support Raniere and his group, including paying for private air travel at a cost of $65,000 a flight. It also said Bronfman has “paid for numerous lawyers to bring suits against Nxivm critics.”
In a website post last year, Bronfman called the secret society a “sorority” that “has truly benefited the lives of its members, and does so freely.” She added, “I find no fault in a group of women (or men for that matter) freely taking a vow of loyalty and friendship with one another to feel safe while pushing back against the fears that have stifled their personal and professional growth.”
Raniere and Mack have also denied the allegations. In their court papers, the defense lawyers have said the supposed victims of the group were never abused and were in fact “independent, smart, curious adults” searching for “happiness, fulfillment and meaning.”
Raniere, Mack and some of the other defendants were expected to appear together at a pretrial hearing on Wednesday in Brooklyn.
Associated Press Writer Mary Esch contributed to this report from Albany, New York.