I was recently asked by a reader about “how lawyers were treated” at NXIVM, the life coaching company that critics say is a cult.
I responded that their lawyers were often treated disrespectfully, but they knew what their client, Keith Raniere, leader of NXIVM, wanted.
For Raniere, getting indictments superseded civil litigation victories – even if there was a large monetary gain at stake. Raniere made it clear that for NXIVM to thrive, its enemies must be destroyed.
When I worked there, most of the lawyers secretly despised NXIVM; they made this known to me and to other NXIVM lawyers and opposing lawyers, and sometimes judges.
But they loved the pay. Lawyers are funny that way: They disliked the injustice Raniere was trying to purchase, but they had a million-dollar client who would pay them for the injustices.
In early 2012, the Albany Times Union published an investigative series — Secrets of NXIVM — written by veteran reporter, James Odato.
The series included information about Raniere and other leaders of NXIVM. Raniere was accused, among other things, of being a pedophile, an abuser of women and a man who used litigation to punish adversaries, critics and ex-lovers.
It detailed how Seagram heiresses, Clare and Sara Bronfman funded Raniere’s efforts.
Among others, the Times Union series quoted two of Raniere ex-lovers, Barbara Bouchey and Toni Natalie, as well as former consultant, Joseph O’Hara, and blogger, John Tighe who had written about NXIVM.
After the stories ran, NXIVM started a lawsuit and went to the state police to file criminal charges against Bouchey, Natlaie, O’Hara, Tighe, and Odato, as well as a freelance writer, Suzanna Andrews, who wrote a story about NXIVM that was published in Vanity Fair Magazine.
NXIVM claimed these six people conspired to access the company’s password protected website without authorization.
As background, Natalie had been Raniere’s lover for eight years, (1992-1999), and Bouchey was involved with him for nine years (2000-2009).
Both women claim Raniere promised he would have a child with them and that he was monogamous. Both found out he kept a harem; neither had a child with him.
O’Hara had acted as a consultant and quit when he said Raniere was asking him to hire private investigators to do illegal spying on Raniere’s enemies.
Tighe published a blog called Saratoga In Decline which focused on NXIVM’s misdeeds.
State police commenced a criminal probe centering on the allegations that these six people used accounts and passwords assigned to other NXIVM students to gain access to the NXIVM’s password-protected website and that some of the materials viewed — including clients’ lists and training manuals — were trade secrets.
Court records show the investigation began in April 2012 when State Police investigator, Rodger Kirsopp, was contacted by NXIVM’s attorneys, Stephen R. Coffey, Pamela Nichols and Michael P. McDermott from the Albany law firm of O’Connell & Aronowitz.
McDermott was former chief assistant District Attorney for Albany County before entering private practice in 2007.
Court records show that NXIVM attorneys contacted Kirshopp more than 30 times, including attending interviews conducted with Raniere and NXIVM employees.
They delivered documents, computer records and other evidence, and hired private investigators and computer experts to gather information for Kirsopp.
Kirsopp notes reveal the extent that Raniere’s attorneys were interested in the case.
“I met with Atty Coffey at SP Clifton Park who inquired on the status of this investigation and whether there would be search warrants of the suspects computers prior to or at the time of arrest,” Kirsopp wrote on Aug. 6, 2012. He added that Coffey requested the suspects be arrested, rather than issued appearance tickets.
McDermott expressed concern about delays in making arrests.
“I received a call from Atty McDermott who requested action by 9/10/12 in case the offense only rises to misdemeanor level due to the statute of limitations,” states a report Kirsopp filed on Aug. 27.
In September, Coffey went to Kirsopp’s office and gave him “a packet of paperwork” about O’Hara regarding “banking matters.”
“(I)t is unclear how this material is relevant to this investigation,” Kirsopp noted.
After months of investigating, however, the Saratoga County District Attorney declined to prosecute.
Kirshopp asked the New York State Attorney General to prosecute. That office also declined.
Jesse L. Ashdown, an assistant district attorney in Saratoga County, told Kirshopp that the Attorney General turned down the case. According to Kirshopp’s notes, “This information was passed along to (NXIVM) Attorney Pam Nichols.”
With state police unable to get anyone to prosecute, NXIVM’s attorney, McDermott, presented the case to his former assistant at the Albany DA’s office, David Rossi.
But the Albany DA Davide Soares also had a problem. He had had an embarrassing controversy with NXIVM years earlier. It was back in 2007, when O’Hara was targeted for, allegedly, swindling the Bronfmans out of an investment on a land deal.
Secretly, Kristin M. Keeffe, a longtime NXIVM member, and mother of Raniere’s son (she has since fled the cult with her son) was allowed by Soares to work as a volunteer in the Albany County district attorney’s office – she had her own desk there – helping a prosecutor build the original case against O’Hara.
An Albany County grand jury indicted O’Hara on a charge of grand larceny. But a judge threw out the case citing insufficient evidence.
Raniere, who had been working for years on getting O’Hara indicted, was disappointed that the judge threw out the case. Soares seemed disinterested in re-indicting O’Hara.
This infuriated Raniere and he offered me a sizable bonus if I could initiate efforts to get O’Hara re-indicted.
While I was considering the offer, I learned that I had been misled by Raniere about the facts of the case. I concluded it was a civil matter, not a criminal case and I declined to pursue the O’Hara indictment.
It was irrelevant in a sense since I was soon afterward fired when I uncovered other illegal activities Raniere likely committed on unrelated matters.
Later I revealed the information about O’Hara to interested parties and when Soares ran for reelection his opponent publicized the fact that Soares allowed an employee of an alleged victim to work at his office and have access to grand jury information.
The story that Soares’ opponent accused Soares of selling his office to NXIVM to hunt down their enemy got considerable traction. However Soares won reelection.
However, in 2013, when NXIVM attorney McDermott requested his old boss Soares indict O’Hara again, on the unrelated computer trespass case, along with indicting other NXIVM enemies, Soares chose to become the third prosecutor to decline the case.
But a compromise was reached. Soares would claim a conflict of interest and the case would be referred to a “special prosecutor” in Albany.
That special prosecutor was Holly Trexler, who was also a former Albany County assistant district attorney (March 2001 – June 2005) who, before entering private practice, worked under Soares and McDermott.
After a delay of more than a year, things moved fast. Search warrants were issued; the computers of the targets seized. State Police wound up charging the four non-journalists in March 2014.
An investigator for the New York State Police told me they may have wanted to indict the writers, but “we are not about to go up against [George] Hearst” the publisher of the Times Union, or Conde Nast, the publisher of Vanity Fair.
E-Felony criminal charges were filed against the two Raniere ex-lovers, the blogger and the consultant.
Odato, however, lost his job; he was placed on a leave of absence with the Times Union and has not returned.
I imagine it was a happy day in NXIVM village when Natalie and Bouchey were indicted.
I imagine that Clare Bronfman shed tears of joy and clapped her hands.
Not only was Raniere happily destroying his ex-lovers but he nabbed O’Hara, who had criticized him in the press, and Tighe, who criticized him on his blog.
But it hadn’t been easy. And it wasn’t cheap.
Based on what I know of monthly costs for lawyers and private investigators for NXIVM, I estimate it cost Bronfman $2 million (not counting bonuses) to get the four indicted.
Had it not been for Bronfman money, I doubt the four would have been indicted since their prosecution is not likely worth the court’s time over whether a couple of people rooted around a website that literally scores of people had passwords to.
Bouchey admitted to using the password of another Raniere ex-lover, Svetlana Kotlin, and that she signed on once for 15 minutes to look at the harmless social media pages.
That did not stop the full court press against Bouchey.
“NXIVM has maintained an enemy’s list and over the years have attacked certain individuals who have chosen to leave their organization,” said Pamela D. Hayes, one of Bouchey’s attorneys, in a motion to dismiss the case.
Bouchey said NXIVM or its officials have sued her civilly seven times.
The blogger, Tighe fared worse. When state police seized his computer they unexpectedly found evidence of child pornography and he is serving five years and 10 months in federal prison on those charges. Tighe pleaded guilty to the computer trespass charge and was sentenced to a year in jail to be served concurrently with his federal sentence.
O’Hara said he was troubled by the input NXIVM officials and their attorneys had in Kirsopp’s investigation.
“When you look at the number of meetings, the number of phone calls, you began to wonder who’s running the investigation,” O’Hara said.
Court records show Raniere has pursued indictments against Natalie for 16 years. He had private investigators working on digging up dirt on her for years.
When I was working at NXIVM, I learned he guaranteed a certain law enforcement official in Natalie’s home town of Rochester a million dollars to leave his position and work for NXIVM fulltime – if he could get her indicted. The law enforcement official declined.
Meantime Raniere speaks of compassion. His followers address him as Vanguard.
Raniere says, “When we smile, the world smiles with us: each experience of joy is an experience of joy for all people and a victory for human kind.”
His followers compare him to Christ.
Yet he has a reluctance to turn the other cheek, and adopts a philosophy that seems more akin to an eye for a pinprick.
Bouchey, Natalie and O’Hara have made motions to have the case dismissed.
Sources familiar with the case say the evidence is so flimsy that the state may offer an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal for the three defendants.
The criminal indictments – even if there are no convictions – are still victories for Raniere since he has created torment and expenses for his two-ex lovers.
And he made some lawyers (maybe others) very happy.
When I worked for NXIVM, bonuses were in the six-to 7 figures for indictments. Lawyers were encouraged to reach out and touch someone in law enforcement.
And they say NXIVM is not a dangerous cult.
Holly Trexler, a former assistant to NXIVM attorney Michael McDermott, became the “special prosecutor,” for NXIVM enemies.
David Rossi replaced McDermott.