Seagram's heiress Clare Bronfman faints in federal court after judge asks if Michael Avenatti acted as her lawyer

  • Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, fainted in federal court in New York City on Wednesday.
  • A judge had asked Bronfman if she had been secretly represented by embattled celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti in the case, where she is charged with money laundering and identity theft while being part of the the accused sex-cult NXIVM.
  • Bronfman's apparent collapse came two days after Avenatti was accused by federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Los Angeles of trying to extort Nike for up to $25 million, defrauding a client out of a legal settlement, and defrauding a bank by offering the lender bogus income tax returns.
Clare Bronfman, an heiress of the Seagram's liquor empire.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Clare Bronfman, an heiress of the Seagram's liquor empire.

Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, fainted Wednesday in federal court in New York City after a judge asked if she was being secretly represented by embattled celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti in a case where she is charged with money laundering and identity theft involving the alleged sex-cult NXIVM.

After Bronfman's fainting spell, it was revealed in open court that Avenatti had, in fact, last week met with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn about her case, according to a knowledgeable source. The details of that meeting were not disclosed.

With him at that sitdown was a lawyer known to be representing Bronfman, fellow celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, who has been identified as an alleged co-conspirator of Avenatti's in a purported scheme to extort sneaker giant Nike, a prosecutor told the judge in the case. Geragos has not been criminally charged with Avenatti.

Bronfman's apparent collapse in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn came two days after Avenatti was accused by federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Los Angeles of trying to extort Nike for up to $25 million, defrauding a client out of a legal settlement, and defrauding a bank by offering the lender bogus income tax returns.

The hearing in Brooklyn was called to apprise Bronfman of the possible conflicts her lawyers would have in representing her in her own criminal case, given their potential legal exposure to the same Justice Department that is prosecuting her. While Geragos has filed an appearance in Bronfman's case as her lawyer, Avenatti has not — despite meeting with prosecutors about her.

Lawyer Michael Avenatti speaks to the media after he walks out of federal court in New York, New York, U.S., March 25, 2019.
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Lawyer Michael Avenatti speaks to the media after he walks out of federal court in New York, New York, U.S., March 25, 2019.

NXIVM's supporters have said it was a self-help group that wanted to change the world for the better, but federal prosecutors claim it was actually an illegal pyramid scheme that funneled money to its leaders and offered its spiritual leader, Keith Raniere, access to sex slaves.

Bronfman is the daughter of the late Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman. She is free on $100 million bond.

Judge Nicholas Garaufis, a source told CNBC, was asking Bronfman "about Avenatti" when one of her lawyers objected to the line of questioning. The judge then held a sidebar conference with lawyers, out of earshot of reporters and others in the courtroom.

"The judge was very upset because he had not been informed that she had retained Avenatti," which was not disclosed to the judge last week before he held another hearing to discuss possible conflicts of interest that could result from Bronfman funding the attorney costs of her co-defendants, the source said.

"It appeared that the judge was very heated," the source said.

After the sidebar ended, the judge called a five-minute adjournment.

As Bronfman was walking back toward the rear of the courtroom, "she appeared to be wobbling on her feet, and she started to collapse, and her attorney mark Geragos caught her from behind," the source said.

"She didn't hit the floor, her knees start buckling," the source said. "She was very pale."

Emergency medical technicians from the New York Fire Department and other medical workers went to the court in response. But Bronfman declined to go to the hospital. The hearing in the case was continued until Thursday.

While Geragos is not charged with Avenatti, he has been identified as the person who prosecutors in court papers claim acted as a co-conspirator in Avenatti's alleged scheme to shakedown Nike in the past week by threatening to expose damaging information about the sneaker giant.

Geragos refused to answer questions about his purported role as a co-conspirator of Avenatti.

Avenatti did not immediately return a request for comment from CNBC.

Avenatti has said he will be exonerated in the criminal cases he faces.

He gained widespread attention in the past year for representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against President Donald Trump, whose personal lawyer Michael Cohen had paid her $130,000 in hush money to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with Trump. The president denies having sex with her.

Daniels recently severed ties with Avenatti.