Taking down NXIVM: Moira Penza ’05 to give this year’s Bonzani Law Lecture
On Oct. 17, 2017, then-federal prosecutor Moira Penza ’05 settled in for a daily ritual: reading The New York Times. The cover story gave her pause.
“It was about a secretive group in Upstate New York where women were being branded,” she remembered. “Unbeknownst to them, the branding was the initials of a man named Keith Raniere, who was the head of this organization called NXIVM.”
Only a year and a half into her federal post, Penza saw evidence of potential federal crimes, including fraud and extortion. She spent the rest of her day seeing what she could find about the “self-help” group NXIVM — pronounced “Nexium” — before going to a trusted supervisor who specialized in victim-centered cases and then launching an investigation.
With the aid of the FBI, Penza conducted interviews with multiple victims and learned about additional crimes including sexual abuse. After a 6½ week trial, which Penza led, Raniere was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 120 years in prison on charges that included racketeering and sex trafficking.
The Binghamton University alumna’s experience with the NXIVM case will be the subject of this year’s Bonzani Memorial Law Lecture, which will be held both online and at 5 p.m. Nov. 1, in the Innovative Technologies Complex Symposium hall. In “Takedown: Dismantling the NXIVM ‘Sex Cult,’” she will give the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the government’s prosecution of Raniere and his inner circle.
“My biggest fear was, until we arrested him, that there were women and children in danger,” she reflected. “To know that he is in prison for the rest of his life is very satisfying, because I know that he is unable to hurt anyone else ever again.”
Penza started her law career at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where she handled product liability, mass tort, securities and other complex litigation matters. As an assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, she led numerous criminal investigations and prosecutions involving both white-collar and violent crime; her work in the NXIVM case has been credited with paving the way for other sex-trafficking prosecutions against powerful individuals.
The lifelong New Yorker is currently a partner at Wilkinson Stekloff LLP, and has been trial counsel on some of the firm’s most high-profile cases, including representing Altria Group, Inc. in a recent administrative trial related to the Federal Trade Commission’s challenge of Altria’s minority investment in JUUL; the claims against Altria were dismissed in their entirety.
The Harpur College alumna has been widely recognized for her work and her legal commentary has been featured by many outlets, including The New York Times, NPR, Bloomberg, the BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Reuters and others.
A head start at Binghamton
Penza didn’t gain her initial appreciation from the law from family connections; her mother is a retired public schoolteacher and her father owns a New York City dive bar. Rather, she was fascinated by courtroom scenes in film and on television. By the time she headed to Binghamton, she knew she wanted to become a lawyer.
“I think sometimes people do go into law thinking that it’s going to be like that, and most of the time, of course, it’s not. But I actually ended up having a lot more experiences that are like those on TV than many other lawyers,” she said.
A dual major in English and history, the Queens native graduated from Binghamton University in three years and then transferred to law school at Cornell. At Harpur College, she received a “top-notch, well-rounded liberal arts education” that prepared her well for law school and beyond, she said.
During her time there, Penza served on the University’s judicial board as well as High Hopes, then a student-run counseling hotline. She also formed lifelong friendships that continue to enrich her life, starting in her first year when she lived in a triple in Champlain.
Among her greatest supporters were her friends, who gave her a briefcase as a parting gift, she remembered. She stayed in close touch after graduation, coming back to visit Binghamton periodically during breaks from law school.
Binghamton also gave her an opportunity that proved foundational to her future career: a year-long internship at the Broome County Public Defender’s Office, where she aided the chief investigator and attorneys with intake interviews of those who had been arrested. Her only experience working on the defense side in criminal cases, that internship taught her how to ask the right questions and interact with vulnerable people, skills that proved useful during her later career in criminal law.
She also had the chance to watch trials, which solidified her career choice — on the other side of the courtroom.
“Prosecutors have an enormous amount of power within the system. They get to act affirmatively in many situations, as opposed to reactively, which is what you’re often doing if you’re a public defender,” she explained. “I realized that at some point in my career, I wanted to have the ability to build my own cases.”
That includes the difficult choice of who to prosecute — or not. She recommended that charges be dismissed in some cases, including her very first in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“The ultimate point is: Are you doing justice?” she reflected. “Having spent that year at the public defender’s office when I was at Binghamton became important once I was a prosecutor. It was something I never forgot.”
The liberal arts exposes students to a wide range of disciplines and challenges; so, too, does being a trial attorney. Through the years, Penza’s cases led her to learn about topics as varied as concussions in sports, corporate structure, the technology behind e-cigarettes and hormone therapy, to name a few.
“My favorite thing is to be in front of a jury and synthesizing a complex case — being respectful of them and maintaining your credibility first and foremost, and being able to tell a compelling narrative,” she said.
Penza hopes that her talk will inspire Binghamton students to act courageously when they find themselves in the position to mitigate injustice and suffering, just as she was when she first learned about the now-infamous “sex cult.”
She also urged individuals to be wary of situations in which they feel they cannot speak up, and in which only a single viewpoint is considered tolerable. Such situations pave the way for exploitative groups such as NXIVM that sanction abuse and maltreatment.
“That is a situation in which you can have exploitation of people — when people feel they are going to be ostracized if they do not say what everyone else is saying,” she said. “There’s a lot of danger in these situations.”