There is no escaping these two guys. It must have been quite a dramatic moment in the Brooklyn federal courtroom Wednesday when an heiress turned defendant fainted during questioning from the judge. The question: Did Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman secretly retain porn star lawyer Michael Avenatti to negotiate a deal with prosecutors? Given the headlines coming out over the past few days, I might have fainted too.
Bronfman’s case revolves around her connection with the activities of NXIVM, “a self-proclaimed self-help organization that authorities say operated as an abusive cult where selected female ‘slaves’ were forced to have sex with leader Keith Raniere and were branded with his initials.” Her attorney is Avenatti’s buddy Mark Geragos. As we know now, Geragos is an unindicted co-conspirator in Avenatti’s alleged scheme to extort millions of dollars from Nike. So, after Geragos admitted that both he and Avenatti met with prosecutors on the heiress’s behalf, he told the judge that he didn’t know if Avenatti would appear in court with him. The reason given was “because of the other case.” Geragos didn’t say if he was speaking about the Nike case or federal charges Avenatti faces in California for bank fraud and wire fraud. Then Bronfman fainted. Geragos helped her out of the courtroom.
Wednesday’s court proceeding is called a Curcio hearing, which for us non-lawyers is a hearing that investigates whether a conflict of interest exists. In Bronfman’s case, it was to evaluate if Geragos can represent Bronfman or if he has a potential conflict of interest. U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ordered the hearing after the criminal complaints were filed against Avenatti Monday in New York and California. Bronfman and her co-defendant Keith Raniere and all of their attorneys were ordered to be present Wednesday. That’s why Avenatti’s involvement was questioned, because he wasn’t present in the courtroom. The hearing continued on Thursday.
This is an ugly case. There are elements alleged of sex trafficking, sex slavery, and child pornography.
Before his arrest, Raniere was the leader of NXIVM (pronounced nexium), a purported self-help group that prosecutors say was actually a pyramid scheme with a secret sex-slavery ring known as DOS,
While Bronfman faces charges of conspiracy and identity theft, as well as violations of federal anti-racketeering law, Raniere faces a sweeping set of charges including sex trafficking and child pornography.
The judge is trying to determine if Geragos and Avenatti have a conflict of interest as part of the defense team. A Curcio hearing has already been held because Geragos’ daughter Teny works for co-defendent Raniere’s defense team. It’s complicated.
“Based on your review of the government’s letter, are you aware that according to attorney Mark Agnifilo, the individual referred to in the complaint as CC-1 is your attorney, Mark Geragos?” Garaufis asked Bronfman.
The letter Garaufis described was filed earlier this week under seal. Agnifilo represents Raniere in the NXIVM case.
Bronfman did not answer Garaufis’ question, but her curcio counsel, Donna Newman, said the allegations against Geragos were based on hearsay.
Garaufis next asked Bronfman to names the attorneys she had retained.
“Did she retain Mr. Avenatti to represent her in this case, yes or no?” he eventually asked Newman and Bronfman’s attorney, Kathleen Cassidy.
“In this specific case?” Newman asked.
“Your honor, this is exactly what we had requested the sealing for,” Cassidy chimed in. Bronfman’s attorneys had attempted to seal the courtroom before the hearing, but Garaufis denied the motion. Multiple reporters had stood up to object to the proposed sealing. Bronfman has already had a Curcio hearing over her appointment of Geragos, because his daughter, Teny, works on Raniere’s defense team.
The parties went to a sidebar, which Bronfman joined, seated while the lawyers and judge stood around her. The sidebar is sealed in the court transcript.
After the sidebar with the judge, Bronfman fainted. Geragos said she blacked out for 45 seconds to a minute. She was wheeled out of the courtroom on a stretcher by paramedics into a conference room. After the paramedics (and the stretcher) left, Bronfman left on foot. Courtroom drama complete.
Bronfman is using her fortune to help out her co-defendants, including Raniere.
Prosecutors say a trust to which Bronfman contributes is also paying legal bills for her co-defendants, including Raniere, raising conflict-of-interest concerns. Wednesday’s Curcio hearings were to be the eighth and ninth in the case, Garaufis said.
And so it goes.