Secret Agent Schmuck
It was a morning a little more than a year ago: A dapper, gray-haired gentleman was discussing his recently published novel with the two hosts of Fox & Friends, the morning show on the Fox News Channel. Anchors Tiki Barber and Kiran Chetry appeared enthralled by the author, Juval Aviv, who said that his book was actually a barely disguised account of the life and alleged 1991 murder of millionaire media tycoon Robert Maxwell.
Aviv provided his bona fides: He runs a Madison Avenue corporate-espionage firm named Interfor and had been hired to investigate some aspects of Maxwell's complex finances. But during his investigation, Aviv had discovered explosive truths. Maxwell, Aviv said, had actually been a spy for the Russian, British, and Israeli intelligence agencies, and had paid with his life when his spymasters discovered that he'd double-crossed them. Aviv claimed to his Fox News hosts that the revelations in his book were so stunning that he'd had to novelize the tale to protect himself. If he'd told the actual truth, he hinted, he'd have been killed.
"I couldn't write it as a nonfiction," said the Israeli man in his accented English. "It had to be fiction. I don't think I would have survived the nonfiction version of it."
Barber and his co-anchor looked duly impressed. And why not? Here was the real deal, a former Israeli spy who had reportedly spent the 1970s hunting Palestinian radicals around Europe and the Middle East, whose life story was so terrible that he could only allude to it. "You were a top assassin for Mossad, which is Israel's secret service," said Chetry. "In your book, the main character has a situation where he's supposed to knock off 12 leading terrorists and kill them."
"Yes," Aviv said.
"How realistic is that?"
"It's very realistic." Laughing modestly, he added: "I can't talk about it."
It was just another day in the life of Juval Aviv, an "international security expert" and post-9/11 media celebrity who has parlayed his mysterious past into countless appearances on local and national television. Most famously, Aviv has promoted the idea that he was the lead Mossad assassin tasked with avenging the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in a secret operation that was portrayed in Steven Spielberg's 2005 film Munich. It was Aviv that actor Eric Bana was supposedly playing, though his name in the movie was "Avner."
At least that's what Aviv wants people to believe.
Aviv has chatted on air with ABC's George Stephanopoulos and CNN's Mary Snow. Bill O'Reilly has consulted Aviv on preparedness and homeland security. Fox business anchor Neil Cavuto has often invited him onto his show Your World with Neil Cavuto to discuss everything from Middle Eastern politics to the latest dispatch from Osama bin Laden.
Thanks in part to Aviv's high TV profile, his company Interfor has won some of the most lucrative corporate-espionage contracts in the business. Earlier this summer, for example, Hollinger hired Aviv to trace assets allegedly hidden by the disgraced media tycoon Conrad Black. Life as a former spook is apparently very lucrative.
But throughout Aviv's rise as one of New York's biggest corporate spies and as a terrorism expert on television, there have been nagging questions about his legitimacy. Is this guy really who he says he is? Officially, the Israeli government says that Aviv is full of it. According to a 1990 letter from Yigal Carmon, then the Israeli prime minister's counterterrorism adviser, Aviv was never an assassin, let alone the person chosen by Golda Meir to avenge the Munich massacre. "Aviv does not work and has never worked for the Intelligence Community of the State of Israel," Carmon wrote in response to an inquiry from the U.S. government.
A still from Munich -- Robert ( Mathieu Kassovitz) and Avner (Eric Bana.) Juval Aviv claims that the part played by Bana is actually based on Juval Aviv's real life story.
photo: Universal Studios and Dreamworks LLC
In fact, Carmon added, the closest that Aviv ever came to intelligence work was as a security official for an El Al office in New York. "His work in that capacity was terminated at the initiative of the employer because of unsuitability resulting from negative character traits," Carmon wrote. "During the course of his work Yuval [sic] Aviv was found to be unreliable and dishonest."
Nonetheless, Aviv has built a remarkable career for himself. In 1989, following the Pan Am 103 bombing that killed 270 people in Lockerbie, Scotland, airline officials hired Aviv to investigate the incident. His reportalleging that the bombing was a CIA gun- and drug-smuggling operation gone terribly wrongwas leaked to the press, reportedly by Aviv himself. News outlets like Time, NBC, ABC, and Barron's picked up the story. But as more skeptical journalists began to examine Aviv's report, Pan Am officials suddenly dropped their plans to use it as a defense, and the media outlets that had run Aviv's allegations squirmed under the scrutiny. A Brooklyn federal magistrate later found Aviv's report to be utterly without merit.
Today, American intelligence officials who were charged with investigating the Pan Am 103 bombing are still furious with Avivand they fume over the fact that national television outlets treat him as anything but a fraud. "This crud, this piece of dirt, went around inventing stories about how this plane got destroyed, because he was paid money to do so," says Vincent Cannistraro, the former chief of operations and analysis at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. "The man is not worth being in human company, frankly."
"This guy's full of shit," says Larry Johnson, who served in the CIA and as a deputy director in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. "What's true is, yes, he has a security and corporate-intelligence firm, and he's big at playing up the Israeli mystique. If you say it with a foreign accent, you're good to go."
Aviv, these senior counterterrorism officials insist, is no terrorism expert; instead, he's a liar who's been spreading falsehoods about his résumé and his prowess as an investigator.
But even Aviv's most virulent critics express astonishment at what he's been accused of doing lately.
Court documents allege that in 2003, Aviv signed an intelligence contract with the NXIVM Corporation, an Albany-based company that offers seminars in achieving personal and business goals, and whose devotees include heirs to some of the richest fortunes in America and Mexico. In the last few years, former members of NXIVM have come forward to claim that the company is in fact a predatory personal-growth cult that subjects its members to intensive brainwashing and requires them to swear their lives to its leader, an accused pyramid-scheme operator and self-styled genius named Keith Raniere. According to court papers, NXIVM hired Aviv to dig up dirt on someone that Raniere considered an enemy: New Jerseybased cult expert Rick Ross, a controversial figure himself who is also a frequent guest on television news programs.
Ross had been working with people who wanted his help to get family members out of NXIVM, and had been posting damaging news stories about Raniere on his website.
Ross is now suing NXIVM and Aviv, claiming that over the course of several months, Aviv and Interfor compiled an extensive report on him that included private financial and telephone recordsinformation that Ross says was illegally obtained. Ross complains that he was even the target of an elaborate sting operation orchestrated by Aviv on behalf of NXIVM, which involved trying to lure him onto a ship in the Caribbean.
NXIVM and Raniere have denied the allegations and are suing Ross as well, charging him with copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and product disparagement. But the Voice has learned that Aviv has done other work for Raniere, an odd figure who requires his followers to refer to him as "Vanguard." The Voice has obtained evidence that Aviv agreed to investigate Raniere's ex-girlfriend, a woman who says she has been systematically harassed, intimidated, and terrorized by members of NXIVM.
Juval Aviv: trusted Fox News terrorism expert, or a fraudulent tale teller willing to hire himself out to a thuggish cult leader? It's a question that is at the heart of three lawsuits in two jurisdictions, with as many twists and turns as an espionage potboiler.
Much about Aviv's life remains a mystery, but here's what he's claimed. Born in Israel in 1949, Aviv supposedly became a major in the Israeli Defense Force and joined the Mossad in the late 1960s. After spending a few years doing spook work for Israel, a disillusioned Aviv left the Mossad and was banned from re-entering Israel for a time. So he stayed in New York and drove a cab while he figured out how to put his life back together. In 1979, Aviv founded Interfor, which today says it has 500 employees and 23 offices worldwide.
The notion that Aviv was the leader of a Mossad assassination squad that murdered the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre dates back to the mid-1980s, when Canadian journalist George Jonas wrote Vengeance, a nonfiction account of the killings that later became the template for Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner. Jonas gave the name "Avner" to the person he said he relied on for his account, the person he claimed was the lead assassin of the group. After the book's publication, Aviv claimed that he was in fact the "Avner" character. But Jonas later denied that he and Aviv ever collaborated at all.
These days, Aviv is more coy about his Munich claims. Last year, when Aviv was hawking his Robert Maxwell novel, correspondent Andrew Billen of The Times of London asked him if he'd led the Mossad team. "I can't tell you that," Aviv replied. "Let me just tell you one thing. There is no statute of limitation to the events in the book Vengeance and in the movie. It has become a popular thing lately for families of those who were killed to sue Israeli officials and ex-Mossad agents."
Indeedand if Aviv really were the "Avner" figure portrayed in the movie, one would expect the Mossad to deny that he had been an assassin on its payroll. But investigative reporters and CIA officials have strenuously challenged Aviv's claims since as early as 1992. Producers for the CBS show 60 Minutes, for example, initially considered Aviv a treasure trove of intelligence, and planned to put him on retainer as a consultant for their stories about Pan Am 103 and international terrorism. But after vetting his background, they dropped him as fast as they could. "He comes across as very believable and can cite all kinds of people that he knows," says the 60 Minutes producer who worked with Aviv (and who refused to be identified). "But when you start checking, you find out it's not there."
According to Larry Johnson, who worked on counterterrorism for the CIA and the State Department, all it takes to disprove Aviv's claims is to consider that he supposedly worked for the Mossad in the late 1960s and early '70s. But Aviv was born in 1947. In 1972, he was only 25 years old. "Rightthey're gonna put somebody that young and inexperienced to be the lead Mossad assassin? It's bullshit," Johnson tells the Voice.
Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist who specializes in intelligence issues, has written in Haaretz and The Guardian that Aviv was not only never in the Mossad, but he even failed basic training as an Israeli Defense Force commando. When asked to comment, Aviv told the British newspaper The Independent that Melman is angry because Aviv refused to cooperate with him on a book project. Melman promptly called Aviv a liaragain.
According to Interfor's public-relations director, Stephen Braswell, Aviv has been "traveling" and is unavailable for comment. However, Braswell added, Aviv stands by his claim to have been an Israeli intelligence agent, just as he stands by his investigation of the Pan Am 103 bombing. But it's his work on the Lockerbie affair that has led so many intelligence officials and investigative reporters to denounce him as an unscrupulous fraud.
On December 21, 1988, Pan Am 103 was directly over Lockerbie en route to New York when roughly one pound of Semtex explosive detonated in the forward cargo hold. The explosion punched a hole in the fuselage, and shock waves tore the plane apart, killing 259 passengers and crew, including at least four CIA agents.
Law-enforcement agencies scrambled to investigate. Meanwhile, families of the victims sued the airline, claiming that Pan Am officials had ignored key security procedures and let the unaccompanied suitcase containing the bomb onto the plane. As Pan Am's lawyers began preparing their defense, they hired Juval Aviv to investigate the bombing.
Aviv submitted his report a few months later. It was a masterpiece of boilerplate spy stuff, with unnamed intelligence sources, a secret drugs-for-hostages swap overseen by rogue CIA elements, and a multilateral terrorist network that Aviv dubbed the "Interterror Group." According to Aviv's report, a Frankfurt-based CIA group had cut a deal with the Syrian arms and drug smuggler Monzer al-Kassar (for more on Kassar, see the recent Voice story "Busting the Merchant of War," July 24), in which the rogue CIA group would let Kassar ship drugs to America on Frankfurt Pan Am flights in return for his help securing the release of American hostages in Beirut. Kassar also allegedly used his drug profits to finance the shipment of arms to the Nicaraguan contras. Meanwhile, Aviv wrote, Kassar's terrorist friends decided to exploit his access to Pan Am cargo holds to smuggle a bomb on board one of the planes.
As the terrorists carried out their operation, West German intelligence agents allegedly warned the rogue CIA group that a bomb was about to be placed on a Pan Am flight. But the group did nothing to stop it. Why? Aviv suggested that a second CIA unit had gotten wise to the drugs-for-hostages deal and was flying back to Washingtonon that very flightto rat out their colleagues and even go to the press, if necessary. The implication was clear: An outlaw group of CIA spooks let the plane be destroyed in order to cover up a vestigial limb of the Iran-contra scandal.
Despite the outlandish claims and the lack of named sources, Aviv suggested that his story could play very well in the national media. "From the perspective of journalists," he wrote, "it is publishable speculation." Sure enough, Time magazine published a version of this very story a few months later, headlined "The Untold Story of Pan Am 103." But after a little digging, reporters with the English Sunday paper The Observer claimed that almost all of Aviv's "inside" information about Kassar had been cribbed from a recently published German book about the arms dealer. Aviv, they concluded, "had pieced together known events and facts in a wild conspiracy." (Interfor representatives defended the Pan Am report in an e-mail message to the Voice but didn't go into detail.)
Pan Am eventually dropped the Aviv defense and was found liable in federal court for willful misconduct. According to plaintiffs' attorney Jim Kreindler, the Interfor report seriously damaged Pan Am and Aviv personally. "He made up all this nonsense and then leaked it to the press," Kreindler says.
Pan Am wasn't the only one embarrassed by Aviv's work. In 1992, Steven Emerson, a former CNN correspondent who specializes in security and terrorism, wrote a detailed Washington Journalism Review account of just how Time, NBC, and ABC had bought into Aviv's story. When told that Aviv now regularly appears on national television as a credible terrorism expert, Emerson was flabbergasted. "It's amazing to see how many times he fooled people," he says. On the other hand, Emerson adds, television news bookers have neither the time nor the procedures to vet the "experts" who show up at their studios: "It's so easy to go on the air and pretend you're something you're not. . . . The trick in television is just to fill up the time."
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.' "
Raniere has done considerably better with NXIVM. Originally dubbed Executive Success Programs, the company offers Ayn Randian seminars on personal growth and achieving business goals. But critics say that the exhaustive, 10-hour sessions are designed to break down students' personalities and isolate them from family and friends, until they're dependent on NXIVM for their self-esteem and willing to pay good money to get it. NXIVM devotees include some of the richest people in America and Mexico, such as two heirs to the Bronfman/Seagram's fortune, Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson, and the children of former Mexican presidents Carlos Salinas and Vicente Fox.
No one has complained about NXIVM more tirelessly than Rick Ross, a New Jerseybased "cult deprogrammer" who has spent years compiling information on predatory cults around the country. Ross says he first heard of NXIVM in late 2002, when a family called to complain that their son had gotten involved with a strange new group and had recruited their daughters for the seminars as well. A private eye dug up the pyramid-scheme accusations against Raniere's earlier venture, and one of the daughters gave notes from her NXIVM seminars to Ross, who forwarded them to a few psychiatrists. John Hochman, a UCLA behavioral-psychiatry professor, concluded that NXIVM's curriculum employed classic group mind-control techniques: long seminar hours, isolation from friends and family, redefining English words to fit the ambitions of group leaders, paramilitary rituals (Raniere's followers are forced to wear sashes displaying their rank and to address him as "Vanguard"), and daily contact with group leaders "framed as personal growth."
"They claimed that they had a 'breakthrough technology,' " Ross says. "What they really have, in my opinion, is just another large group-awareness training program, very similar to [the personal-growth cult] Landmark Education, with certain aspects that are almost verbatim from the teachings of Scientology."
NXIVM's Robertson replies that Ross merely paid Hochman a fee to write the analysis he wanted. "Hochman was paid by Ross or others to create a report," he said. "So he's compromised. It's not a scholarly report; he was paid to come up with a certain production." As for Ross, Robertson claims that he's just a "thug" who incites fear of cults in innocent people to make a buck. "Ross is paid to create cults. That is to say, the more cults, the more opportunities he has to make money deprogramming people. . . . The man's a criminalin my opinion, anyway."
Armed with this report, Ross lured his clients' son to a Florida vacation resort and tried to talk him into leaving NXIVM; however, the son refused and later moved to Raniere's Albany headquarters. But the rest of the family got out, and Ross published Hochman's report, along with everything else he could find on NXIVM, on his website. NXIVM's leaders promptly sued him for copyright infringement; the lawsuits and countersuits are stuck in federal court to this day. As part of NXIVM's legal strategy, Juval Aviv was allegedly given a new assignment in 2004: take on Ross as a special project.
Around November 2004, according to a lawsuit that Ross filed against NXIVM, an Interfor representative called and asked him if he wouldn't mind speaking to a gentleman named Juval Aviv. "He told me that a very old friend of his, an old and dear friendnot just a client, but someone that was a personal friendhad a daughter in NXIVM and wanted to do an intervention to deprogram her," Ross said in a later interview. "And he repeatedly said that the mother was very wealthy, the family was very wealthyas if to impress me, I suppose, or get my interest."
Ross agreed to meet the mother and Aviv at Interfor's office on Madison Avenue. Later that month, Ross walked into the lobby and met Aviv for the first time. "I couldn't help but notice that his hand was sweaty when he shook my hand," Ross recalled. "And I thought that he was very nervous. And he seemedhow do I put it?an oily creature." The two men allegedly sat in a conference room with Interfor attorney Anna Moody and a distraught woman who called herself Susan Zuckerman, but who, Ross claims he would later discover, was really a professional actress.
"She tells me she's very worried about her daughter," Ross says. "That her daughter is brainwashed, that she's in NXIVM, that she's sold family heirlooms to pay for courses. That her husband is sick over it, that he had to go to pawnshops in Manhattan and find these things and buy them back. That they've had terrible arguments over this, that she's very worried and doesn't know what to do." According to Ross's lawsuit, Moody asked him what he knew about NXIVM. As a tape machine recorded the conversation, Ross spent at least an hour explaining what he'd discovered about the group, Raniere, and the psychological effects of the "seminars."
After speaking with Zuckerman, the allegedly grieving mother, Ross agreed to conduct an intervention, but added that he wouldn't have anything to do with physical restraint. The daughter, he insisted, would be free to leave at any time. "Aviv walks me to the elevator, even rides the elevator down to the lobby with me," Ross later recounted. "And then he gushed to me that there would be other cases that we could work on, and that there would be other cults that he would like to go after, and so on. I thought, 'Man, this guy is really nervous.' And he just seemed to go overboard, and he was really solicitous."
In April 2005, according to the lawsuit, Ross returned for a second meeting. In a discussion about how such an intervention would work, Ross advised the people assembled that because NXIVM leaders had a habit of constantly interrupting the deprogramming with phone calls and e-mails, it was best to have it take place somewhere isolated. Someone at the meeting suggested a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Ross would later recall that the more the cruise-ship notion was floated, the more excited Aviv and Moody became. They even paid him a $2,500 retainer. But then Ross warned Moody that, as an ethical principle, he would never be alone in the room with the daughter; someone she trustedher mother, or family friend Avivwould always have to be present. Ross claims that Moody appeared crestfallen at the news. A few weeks later, an Interfor representative telephoned Ross and called the whole thing off.
Meanwhile, NXIVM's consultant, Joseph O'Hara, was growing more and more disturbed at what Aviv and Raniere were planning for Ross. O'Hara ultimately stopped working for NXIVM, and now the company is suing him as well. According to records found in this lawsuit, Interfor faxed O'Hara a "confidential document" on November 23, 2004. The report was, in fact, a dossier that Aviv and Interfor had prepared on Rick Ross, detailing every piece of dirt they could find on him. "Ross' past criminal record, psychiatric history, and financial bankruptcy leaves him extremely vulnerable if all the source information so far indicated checks out," the report read.
Interfor tallied every damaging item its investigators could find: Ross saw a shrink as a teenager and was once diagnosed as "hyperkinetic child"; he was arrested for vandalism when he was 10; after a deprogramming incident went bad, he was sued for kidnapping and declared bankruptcy. (Ross had tried to help a woman get her son out of a church that Ross considered a Bible-based cult, but the son, who was over 18, claimed that he'd been held against his will. Oddly, it was the Church of Scientologywhich had no relation to the son's churchthat encouraged him to file the suit against Ross and paid all of his legal costs. That famous case had bizarre repercussions: Eventually, the Church of Scientology won control of the Cult Awareness Network, its longtime enemy, through this case.) But the Ross dossier went much deeper than that. Interfor had also accessed Ross's personal checking account, recorded his financial assets, and even listed all the checks he had written in October 2004right down to the check number and the amount. In addition, Interfor had obtained Ross's telephone records and listed phone calls that he had made from 2002 to 2004. "Some of the material in the report appeared to me to be illegally obtained," O'Hara said in a later interview. (Interfor representative Stephen Braswell refused to discuss this report or anything related to Rick Ross and NXIVM.)
The very next day, an alarmed O'Hara penned a note and hand-delivered it to Keith Raniere. "At least some of the information that is contained therein could not have been obtained legally," O'Hara wrote, according to court records. "I was not aware that this review would involve any illegal and potentially criminal activities. . . . It is imperative that you . . . immediately direct Interfor to cease and desist any such activities. . . . This specifically includes, but is not limited to, the 'Sting Operation' that Keith has proposed having Interfor undertake with respect to Mr. Ross." In January 2005, O'Hara quit his job with NXIVM and took boxes of documents with him. A few months later, he gave Interfor's report on Ross to Chet Hardin, a reporter for the Albany alternative newsweekly Metroland. Mere months after his bizarre encounter with Aviv, Ross got a phone call from Hardin, who told him that Interfor had compiled a secret profile of him, complete with his private financial information and phone records. "I thought Chet was nuts," Ross says. "Hardin said to me, 'Well, would you just go pull a statement? Just pull your statement. . . . I went through it with him, and [he] had all kinds of information that was detailed down to the pennydeposits, check numbers, everything.' "
When Ross later called O'Hara, he realized that Interfor had been working for NXIVM all along. Suddenly, it all started to make sense. There was never any Susan Zuckerman, never any daughter she wanted freed from NXIVM's clutches. Aviv, Ross would later claim in a $1 million lawsuit, was just setting him up for something. Those hour-long recorded conversations with Interfor's lawyer were just fishing expeditions to find out what Ross had on the company. The whole time that Aviv was pretending to be a kindly old man looking out for his friend's daughter, he was allegedly snooping through Ross's private life, looking for anything that could hurt him.
But what was that cruise all about? Why were they so excited to get him alone in the middle of the Caribbean? According to O'Hara, a young, female NXIVM leader named Kristin Keeffe was supposed to play the role of the daughter. When O'Hara asked what Keeffe planned to do with Ross out on that big boat, she allegedly replied, "We're going to convert him." In the end, no one will probably ever know how Raniere's alleged "sting operation" would end.
According to NXIVM spokesman Robertson, company leaders were appalled to learn what Aviv was up to. Robertson also claimed that O'Hara is a corrupt lawyer who is sure to be eventually disbarred and accused him of embezzling $250,000 in NXIVM funds. O'Hara cryptically replied that the matter is the subject of litigation, and that the lawsuit is on the eve of being settled amicably.
Robertson says that NXIVM was barely in contact with Aviv, whom O'Hara hired on its behalf for entirely legal investigations. "We knew nothing here about a sting," he said. "We had no participation in any sting. We found out about it afterward. What we saw was, a corrupt attorney hires a corrupt private investigator. . . . We certainly didn'tand would notauthorize illegal activities. That was his doing, and I understand that's his nature. He's pretty much a loose cannon."
When asked if he regretted hiring Aviv, Robertson replied: "How can you not regret hiring the guy who would pad his hours, he'd fabricate, he'd create stories that he couldn't document, and behind your back he creates fantastic programs like, uh, we later found out he was going to do some kind of insane sting kind of deal. . . . We're certainly not responsible, nor do we condone this type of activity. Aviv did it, there seems to be no doubt. How he did, I don't know. I heard that he was rummaging through garbage."
Ross's battle with NXIVM has received publicity elsewhere, but in the course of researching Aviv's past and his involvement with Raniere, the Voice learned that this wasn't the only time the corporate spy was asked to pursue one of Raniere's detractors.
Toni Natalie was just a mom with a 10th-grade education, and all she wanted to do was leave Raniere behind her. But according to her and O'Hara, Aviv was hired to go after her as well.
Natalie first met Raniere when he was running Consumers Buyline. She and her husband had sold a bumper crop of commissions, and Raniere allegedly invited them up to Albany for an awards ceremony. According to Natalie, Raniere became attracted to her, offered her intensive counseling to help her quit smoking, and promptly manipulated her into breaking up her marriage. "Before I knew it, he had me convinced that my husband was cheating on me and was having an affair with my nanny," Natalie recalls. "It was all a lie . . . the next thing I knew, I was divorced and living in Albany."
Natalie claims that she secretly dated Raniere for a while, but she became unnerved by all the women he kept around him, as well as his odd promises that she would bear his child and that this child would save the world. "So I tried to break it off with him," she says. That's when the stalking started. Raniere's followers, Natalie says, "broke into my house; they would come and ring the doorbell at all hours of the day or night. They would tell me that I had to come with them, that he was dying, that if I didn't stay with him, he was going to die. . . . They tortured meI got down to, I don't know, a hundred pounds."
After six months of this, Natalie says she returned to Raniere and dated him until 1999, when she tried to leave him again and open a restaurant in Rochester. And once again, she claims, the torment resumed. "When I finally did leave, they would break into my house and flip pictures upside down, they'd unmake my bed, steal clothes out of my closet. . . . They stole my mail, they shut off my phone, they shut off my electricity. They called me up and asked me if I knew where my son was. . . . They used to stand in front of the restaurant for hours, telling my waitresses, 'You don't understand, she has to come backshe's the chosen one!' "
Eventually, Natalie says, the hounding faded away, and she set out to rebuild her life. But last summer, Joseph O'Hara contacted Natalie and faxed her a document that might, he said, be of interest to her. The document, which Natalie provided to the Voice, was a January 14, 2005, invoice from Interfor to O'Hara, in which Aviv and his associates agreed to follow Natalie, spy on her in her house, and dig into her financial records. "Interfor will conduct a discreet, confidential investigation on Toni Natalie," the invoice read. "Interfor will monitor the current activities of Ms. Natalie at her house and certain other residences as discussed. . . . Interfor will conduct an asset investigation of Toni Natalie focusing on current holdings as well as possible fraudulent activity (i.e., using her dead aunt's credit cards)." O'Hara confirms that he sent the invoice to Natalie.
Only now, Natalie says, has she been able to discuss this ordeal in detail. "They're scary, scary people," she says of NXIVM. "I can talk about it now, but up until three years ago, I was a babbling idiot. . . . You have no idea. If a door slammed, I'd be stuck on the top of the ceiling."
Asked about Natalie's allegations, NXIVM spokesman Robertson says that Aviv was merely retained to investigate whether Natalie committed fraud when she filed for bankruptcy in 1999. "I couldn't tell you what Aviv did with this Natalie woman, except that he was certainly not authorized by us to do anything other than to find out if she's committing fraud," he says. As for her claims that Raniere and his associates stalked and terrorized her, Robertson replies that Natalie is a deranged felon who embezzled a fortune and defrauded numerous banks.
"She is a habitual thief, and she's a criminal," Robertson says. (The Voice, however, could turn up no evidence that Natalie has ever been charged with a crime.) "She's psychologically damaged. The woman isshe's a classic kind of person who likes to pretend fear where she's really the victimizer. . . . It's ridiculous to suggest, as Toni has, that she was harassed."
Then, after denying that Natalie had been the subject of harassment, Robertson e-mailed the Voice an obsessively detailed 25-page report on her compiled by NXIVM associate Kristin Keeffe (the same woman who was supposed to be on the ship in the Caribbean with Ross), which was the result of an investigation into every aspect of her lifeincluding her family, her husband, and the restaurant chain they operatewith 47 endnotes, including references to credit-card statements and lease invoices. Keeffe's report accuses Natalie of no fewer than 260 counts of bank fraud, racketeering, and money laundering. Somehow, Robertson expected that this reportalmost frightening in its level of detailwould prove that Raniere has put his involvement with Natalie behind him.
In 2003, when Raniere levelled these same charges against Natalie at her bankruptcy hearing, Judge Robert Littlefield found the claims to be utterly unsubstantiated. He dismissed the report, saying: "This matter smacks of a jilted fellow's attempt at revenge or retaliation against his former girlfriend."
O'Hara, Ross, Aviv, and NXIVM are all still suing each other, and the cases don't seem likely to be resolved any time soon. Natalie fought Raniere over a bankruptcy proceeding for years; now, she said, she just wants it all to go away.
In the years since his adventures with NXIVM, Aviv has done very well for himself, snagging contracts with Hollinger and other Fortune 500 companies. Fox News, CNN, and other national news outlets still call and ask his counsel on the latest turn in international affairs. None of them seem to have done much to vet his credentials. Audrey Pass, a booker on Fox 5 News (which regularly interviews Aviv on the air), insists that the station has a proper procedure for researching the backgrounds of their expert guestshowever, she adds, "I'm not going to discuss what those procedures are." CNN spokeswoman Edie Emery also promised that the network's background checks are thorough. "Based on the information that he provided at the time," she says, "we vetted him."
Meanwhile, people like investigative reporter Steven Emerson and former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro shake their heads in disbelief. Despite all the accusations of fraud, manipulation, plagiarism, and invasion of privacy over all these years, the gravy train just keeps rolling for Juval Aviv.
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