NEW YORK (AP) — Federal prosecutors are challenging how defense lawyers are being paid in the case against a self-improvement organization accused of branding female followers.
Court papers say a trust largely funded by Seagram's liquor fortune heiress Clare Bronfman is bankrolling the defense for her five co-defendants in the sex-trafficking case. They include the leader of the secretive upstate New York group called NXIVM, Keith Raniere and TV actress Allison Mack.
A judge ordered hearings Thursday in the coming days to address what prosecutors have argued is a potential conflict of interest.
All the defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges alleging that followers belonging to a secret society within NXIVM were coerced into becoming sex slaves who were branded with his initials. A trial is expected to begin in March.
In court papers, prosecutors say the main concern "is that this payment structure has the potential to affect defense counsel's advice, including whether to seek possible leniency by cooperating with the government, including against Clare Bronfman, and whether to testify in their own defense at trial, where such testimony might implicate Clare Bronfman."
Prosecutors also claim the trust has sought to pay the legal fees of witnesses. One witness met with an attorney being paid by the trust who "recommended that she invoke the Fifth Amendment in response to the government's questions in the grand jury" or else he wouldn't represent her, according to the government papers.