NEW YORK – When Clare Bronfman discovered a self-help group called NXIVM in 2003, she was struggling with social anxiety, unable to accept her identity as the daughter of a famous billionaire. NXIVM gave her a sense of purpose, she wrote in court papers.

In the course of the next 15 years, she became part of the group's executive board, even as NXIVM faced mounting criticism that it was an abusive cult that coerced women into sexual slavery. Tapping her fortune, Bronfman unleashed an army of lawyers and investigators to pursue critics.

On Wednesday, a federal judge sentenced Bronfman, 41, to six years and nine months in prison for her role in enabling what prosecutors said was a corrupt organization.

"I am troubled by evidence suggesting that Bronfman repeatedly and consistently leveraged her wealth and social status as a means of intimidating, controlling, and punishing" NXIVM's enemies, said Judge Nicholas Garaufis.

Minutes after the judge read his sentence, Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram's liquor fortune, touched her throat as if struggling to swallow. Moments later, federal marshals escorted her out of the courtroom into custody.

Ronald Sullivan, a lawyer for Bronfman, said he would appeal the sentence, calling it an "abomination."

Bronfman was the first defendant to be sentenced in the NXIVM investigation, which has shattered the facade of an organization that purported to help people achieve their personal goals through workshops. Its leader, Keith Raniere, was convicted in June 2019 of racketeering, sex trafficking, fraud and other crimes.

The sentencing hearing lasted more than four hours. Nine victims of NXIVM spoke with emotion about how their lives had been destroyed by Bronfman, leaving behind ruined marriages, careers and reputations. Some of them said Bronfman sued them relentlessly, drove them into bankruptcy and even persuaded prosecutors to initiate criminal charges against them

NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um), which was headquartered near Albany, N.Y., became known as a "sex cult" after trial testimony showed that Raniere had groomed a group of women to be his sexual partners. During a secret ritual, the women were branded with his initials near their pelvis while saying, "Master, please brand me, it would be an honor."

Before Raniere's trial, Bronf­man and four other leaders within his inner circle pleaded guilty, including top recruiter and actress Allison Mack.

Bronfman pleaded guilty to two charges related to identity theft and immigration fraud.

Garaufis gave Bronfman a sentence that was longer than prosecutors had requested. He said, "I don't know how many other multimillionaires are out there, ready to devote the limitless resources at their disposal to supporting pyramid schemes run by dangerous criminals."

Prosecutors said that Raniere could not have committed his crimes without Bronfman. Her late father, Edgar Bronfman, was a billionaire businessman who became an enemy of NXIVM after he called it a "cult" in a 2003 Forbes article.