By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
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As the former head of the CIA's Pan Am 103 investigation, Vincent Cannistraro still feels bitter about Aviv's involvement. "I knew people killed on the flight," he says. "And [Aviv] comes around and points the finger at everyone except the people responsible for it. . . . He'll invent anything, create any kind of scenario always referring back to intelligence, because it's murky and no one can check his credentials. That's the kind of person he is. He's an awful persona despicable person."
The government apparently agreed: In 1995, the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan charged Aviv with wire and mail fraud.
The U.S. Attorney's office charged that, in 1991, General Electric had hired Aviv to submit a report on the security of Caribbean vacation sites that G.E. employees planned to visit, and that Aviv falsely claimed to have interviewed five government officials and one FBI agent for his report.
However, it was a weak accusation: Aviv was paid only $20,683 for the job, G.E. officials had never complained about his work earlier, and, during the trial, Aviv was able to produce telephone records to refute the main charge. His attorney, Gerald Shargel, argued in court (rather convincingly) that the case was really about the government's lingering anger over Aviv's involvement in the Pan Am matter.
"It is an obvious vendetta," Shargel wrote in response to the indictment, "with agents and prosecutors determined to dig and dig into Mr. Aviv's past at whatever expense, and to manipulate and contrive until they can formulate a theory of criminal liability that can be used to discredit Mr. Aviv here and abroad. It is by discrediting him that the government hopes to stamp out the vexatious and powerful public concern over its distasteful involvement in the Lockerbie affair." The jury agreed and acquitted Aviv of all charges.
And so Aviv was free to rebuild his reputationa surprisingly easy task, thanks to 9/11, his reputed Mossad history, and the short attention span of television producers. To be fair, Aviv's reputation as an expert in asset recovery and researching overseas accounts has never been disputed. In addition to his novel about Robert Maxwell, he has also written two books on how to protect one's home, family, and business against terrorist attacks and "minimize your exposure to the next catastrophe." But given his taste for the clandestine, it was perhaps inevitable that controversial, even allegedly sinister figures would crave his services. In October 2003, the leaders of NXIVM Corporation sought him out.
It had been a tough month for NXIVM. The Albany Times-Union had been running stories all year detailing the company's compulsive secrecy, its members' dazed expressions, the exorbitant fees for its 10-hour-long self-help "seminars," and the demand that initiates bow whenever leader Keith Raniere walked into the room. A lengthy Forbes article depicting NXIVM as a strange, manipulative cult was about to go to press. And the family of Kristin Snyder, who had allegedly committed suicide after fleeing one of NXIVM's 16-day "intensive" courses, was starting to raise a fuss. According to Joseph O'Hara, a local attorney who worked as a liaison between NXIVM and Aviv, Interfor was initially hired to investigate the circumstances surrounding Snyder's death.
The Times-Union account of Snyder's last few weeks described a vivacious, confident farm girl whose personality quickly disintegrated after she attended her first 16-day NXIVM session. Her family claimed that she had become an angry, moody insomniac. Snyder told her family that she'd recently learned she had been sexually abused as a child, and that she was morally responsible for the destruction of the Columbia space shuttle. In February 2003, while attending another NXIVM seminar in Alaska, Snyder vanished without a trace; authorities concluded that she paddled a kayak into the middle of a freezing lake and then capsized it.
When police discovered Snyder's truck, they found a notebook inside. "I attended a course called Executive Success Programs (a.k.a. Nexium)," Snyder wrote. "I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off. I still have feeling in my external skin, but my internal organs are rotting."
According to the accounts by Forbes and newspapers around Albany, NXIVM was founded by Keith Raniere, a self-proclaimed genius who, at 12, allegedly took less than a day to teach himself high-school math. While working as a computer programmer in the late 1980s, Raniere became a devotee of Ayn Rand and soon was convinced that self-interest was the apogee of ethical behavior. Setting up a company called Consumer Buyline, he allegedly hawked memberships in a nonexistent discount-consumer-goods club, wowed crowds with his extraordinary charisma, and promised lucrative commissions for members who recruited more customers into the group. But in 1993, as the company's bills began to stack up, the New York attorney general filed suit, charging that Consumer Byline was just another pyramid scheme designed to sucker membership fees out of unwitting customers. As 24 other attorneys general began investigating the company, Raniere shut it down and agreed to pay $40,000 to make the lawsuit disappear.
Asked about the attorney general's charges, NXIVM spokesman Phil Robertson noted that Raniere had never admitted any wrongdoing, and also that he suspected the whole investigation was a conspiracy engineered by Wal-Mart, which felt threatened by Consumer Buyline's low discount prices. "It's just a brilliant idea to save people money, and I think the pinch was felt in Arkansas, and Wal-Mart felt the pinch, and they said, 'Let's collapse this guy.' "