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NXIVM sisters hire private eye
 
By JAMES M. ODATO AND DENNIS YUSKO, Staff writers
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First published: Sunday, March 7, 2010

ALBANY - Clare and Sara Bronfman, wealthy sisters who are major financial backers of the cult-like group called NXIVM, have employed a controversial private investigator to confront friends of a former NXIVM official who has been revealing embarrassing information about them in court.

The investigator, Steven Paul Rombom, 51, was once charged by federal prosecutors with trying to intimidate a federal witness and posing as an FBI agent, and was investigated for threatening a client, according to state and federal records. The charges ended up getting dropped.

In recent months, friends of Saratoga County-based Barbara Bouchey, a former high-ranking NXIVM official and former financial manager for the Bronfmans, say they have been served subpoenas by Rombom and that he has attempted to be intimidating.

Bouchey, who was a member of NXIVM from March 2000 to May 2009, has become a witness in a key case against NXIVM officials and the Bronfmans, providing testimony about $100 million of the sisters' money being poured into questionable ventures at the behest of, or for the benefit of, NXIVM leaders, including Keith Raniere, whom NXIVM followers call "Vanguard", and Nancy Salzman, whom NXIVM followers call "Prefect." The sisters also purchased several Capital Region properties associated with NXIVM, the records show. NXIVM is a Colonie-based organization that offers self-help training programs.

Bouchey's friends say in depositions that they do not understand why Rombom confronted them or why they were subpoenaed. The case where they were directed to testify does not involve Bouchey. It involves the bankruptcy of Joseph O'Hara, also a former NXIVM business associate, who is at odds with the Colonie-based self-improvement group and its benefactors, the Bronfmans.

The Bronfmans' lawyer, William Sabino of Buffalo, said Rombom is being used by his clients because his standard practice is to have subpoenas served face-to-face. "He's an independent consultant, a process servicer," Sabino said. He would not explain why Rombom was chosen for the duty or if Rombom is also investigating people in the Capital Region for the Bronfmans. "That's attorney/client privilege," he said.

Sabino added that he does not believe in trying his argument against O'Hara - an adversary proceeding in his bankruptcy - in the press so he won't make statements that "will embarrass my opponent." The Bronfman sisters are trying to make sure the court handling O'Hara's bankruptcy case doesn't discharge $2 million in debt, the sum the Bronfmans claim they're owed. They claim they loaned him the money in a deal they maintain was fraudulent. The dispute resulted in a lawsuit against O'Hara by the Bronfmans, NXIVM and others. A settlement was reached in the civil case in 2007.

Richard Croak, O'Hara's lawyer, said the bankruptcy matter has nothing to do with Bouchey or with Bouchey's circle of friends and associates, who have been contacted by Rombom. He alleges that the Bronfmans' lawyer issued subpoenas "to individuals who were entirely unrelated to parties in this case" as a form of harassment of a third party, Bouchey, "who is a former friend and adviser" to the Bronfmans.

Croak says in court papers objecting to the subpoenas that Bouchey is also "a possible witness in a federal investigation into the activities" of the Bronfmans "and others involved with the organization NXIVM."

"The clear purpose of the subpoenas is to gather information and harass Bouchey," Croak wrote.

In an interview, Croak would not discuss the federal investigation he referred to. O'Hara also said he would not elaborate, but said he filed a police report concerning vehicles that have showed up at his home in Colonie in the past three weeks.

Bouchey did not return a call. But, lawyer Nathan Goldberg, said he is representing her in a new suit against her by the Bronfmans in California. The suit alleges she breached her fiduciary duties to the Bronfmans and invaded their privacy by disclosing documents identifying transactions involving $100 million from their accounts. Indeed, a document entered into a court case last month from Bouchey purports to show how Bronfman funds covered activities, expenses or purchases she alleges were organized primarily by Raniere and Salzman, two-thirds of which were used to pay for commodities trades that incurred losses.

"Ms. Bouchey cannot help but question the timing of this lawsuit given the fact that prior to its being filed she gave deposition testimony in two cases which may be viewed as unfavorable to the Bronfmans," Goldberg said.

Robert D. Crockett, a lawyer for the Bronfmans and Salzman, who also represents at least one NXIVM associate in another case, did not respond to interview requests.

But sworn statements filed in O'Hara's New York bankruptcy case by the four friends of Bouchey state they were confronted by a private investigator known as Rambam, a nickname used by Rombom, who served them with subpoenas. "Those particular types of subpoenas do not have to be personally delivered; this is a bankruptcy case; you can put them in the mail," Croak said. "They deliberately went out of their way to serve them personally and have them done in a manner that is confrontational."

Croak is seeking a court order of protection to prevent the Brofmans from continuing to serve subpoenas and cancelling the existing subpoenas, which he considered harassment.

In November, Rombom paid the unannounced visits to a Queensbury woman, two Saratoga Springs women and a Latham man. The four, ages 44 to 70, say they had never met O'Hara.

All four individuals are former members of NXIVM, Croak said. The Times Union spoke to three of them and left a message with one to learn more about their stories. All declined interviews through an intermediary, citing fear of litigation. But their sworn statements say that Rombom intimidated them, leaving them frightened and anxious:

Melanie Button, 52, worked as Bouchey's personal assistant for 14 years. She says she pulled into the parking lot of her Queensbury home one night after 9 p.m. in December, and saw a silver SUV pull up alongside. Rombom got out with a woman and peppered her with questions about Bouchey, Button said. Rombom had been seen in the parking lot of the town house complex several other times, Button said. She believes she was being intimidated in regard to other matters, court papers say.

Robert Petro is a 70-year-old minister from Latham. Rombom claimed to be a private detective from California when he and a woman twice visited Petro's Latham home, his statement said. Rombom badmouthed Bouchey, saying she had misappropriated $40 million, demanded Petro talk about Bouchey's business practices and sign a legal document, Petro said. "He said to me, 'We can do this the hard way or the easy way. The hard way is that I can have you arrested now, we will bring you into a lawsuit,'" said Petro, who did not cooperate with Rombom, in a statement.

The Bronfmans say in a court document that Bouchey used Petro as a psychic for guidance on investments.

Kathleen A. Ethier, 51, a massage therapist of Saratoga Springs, also received a subpoena from Rombom. She claims that he hid outside her home, and had taken pictures of it and her car. In court papers, she says she was scared by second-hand threats that she will be arrested or detained.

Angela Ucci, 44, is a hairdresser at Gabrielle Hair Salon in Latham, but lives in Saratoga Springs. Rombom "or his agents" made six visits to her salon, and harassed her family, friends and customers, making her extremely nervous, she said. She had not been issued a subpoena in the O'Hara case, but had requested court protection.

Rombom's reputation in the private investigation field is legendary, according to a veteran downstate PI who declined to be named. Rombom did not return calls and e-mails left at his firm, Pallorium Inc., in Brooklyn.

Joel Barkin, a spokesman for the Department of State, which licenses and regulates private investigators, said two cases concerning Rombom were investigated in 2006, one involving Rombom claiming he was an FBI agent, and another involving a divorce case in which he was doing an asset search for the ex-wife of a wealthy doctor and wanted to be paid a percentage of assets he could discover, which isn't allowed in New York.

The federal government dropped the FBI case and the woman in the second matter also dropped her complaint, ending those 2006 state reviews. An open investigation of Rombom is still underway now however, Barkin said, and relates to Rombom claiming to be in the FBI.

"We have received information that other states may have taken actions against Mr. Rombom that could impact the threshold of good character and trustworthiness licensees must meet to be licensed in New York state," Barkin said. He said he could not elaborate.

The state's file on Rombom shows that Rita Hilsen, a former Park Avenue doctor's wife living in a homeless shelter, hired Rombom. She complained he threatened her, ordering her to hire a specific lawyer. "I was subjected to severe, extreme and abusive pressure tactics," she wrote to the state in attempts to have his license revoked.

The file shows he used the alias of Steve Rambam and identified his company using its Texas office in seeking a percentage of assets recovered from the ex-husband of Hilsen. Rombom sued Hilsen over her failure to pay his fees and told the state that his client's complaint was false and that his engagement was for work outside New York, including abroad. His lengthy response to the state says he was successful locating assets of her husband by tracking him across the globe. His investigation even took him backstage at a performance of the rock band Kiss. "Ms. Hilsen is nothing more than a deadbeat ex-client," Rombom wrote to the state.

A state official concluded in August 2007 he had violated state law in that case, but had not begun a license revocation action. Hilsen withdrew her complaint the next month.

The second complaint was filed by A.J. Weberman, who has created a Web site about Rombom, to advertise Rombom's arrest for impersonating an FBI agent in July 2006 by two FBI agents at a convention about computer hacking. The charges, federal documents show, involved impersonating an FBI agent to intimidate a government confidential informant in a pending criminal matter of a suspected money launderer. The charges were dismissed in October 2006.

The FBI alleged in the case that Rombom had traveled to California to the confidential informant's wife's parents home, represented himself as an FBI agent and said their daughter's family was in jeopardy because the informant was a dangerous person. He showed photos that suggested his associates had taken pictures of their loved ones, the document said.

The state file includes information about a federal case against Rombom from 1976, when he was 17. The document indicates he was arrested on an array of charges, including use of explosives, possession of a silencer and assault on an official with a deadly weapon. The file includes information about his probation report, but is incomplete.

James M. Odato can be reached at 454-5083 or jodato@timesunion.com.

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