Co-founders of self-help group plead not guilty

Actress Allison Mack, center, leaves Federal court, Wednesday, July 25, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

the Associated Press

NEW YORK — An heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, a TV actress and the co-founders of a purported self-help group appeared in court together for the first time on Wednesday to face charges in a case accusing the group of branding women and forcing them to have unwanted sex.

Keith Raniere, the former head of NXIVM, and Allison Mack, best known for playing a teenage friend of Superman in the CW network’s “Smallville,” pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges contained in a revised indictment unsealed earlier in the week. They had previously pleaded not guilty to sex-trafficking charges.

The new indictment added heiress Clare Bronfman and group co-founder Nancy Salzman as co-defendants. Both also pleaded not guilty.

The defendants mostly appeared not to acknowledge each other in court, except for Mack and Bronfman, who smiled and chatted at the defense table before the proceeding began.

Raniere is being held without bail. Bronfman is free after posting a $100 million bond. Mack and Salzman are free on $5 million bonds.

The three women left court without speaking to reporters. All have denied wrongdoing.

A lawyer for Raniere, Marc Agnifilo, said the alleged victims were never forced to do anything against their wills.

“These were choices by grown adults about how to be with each other,” said Agnifilo, who in court papers has called the Justice Department the “morality police.”

Prosecutors have accused Mack of helping Raniere recruit women to a secret sub-society within NXIVM, for years a target of criticism by ex-followers who called it a cult. The women were branded by way of a surgical tool with a symbol that resembled Raniere’s initials and were expected to have sex with “masters,” prosecutors said.

In an interview with The New York Times prior to her arrest, Mack acknowledged that members of the sub-society used the terms “slave” and “master” and ordered each other to engage in acts of self-denial, but she said it was all done to further self-discipline and self-empowerment.