A co-founder of an embattled upstate New York self-help organisation pleaded guilty on Wednesday in a case featuring sensational claims that some followers became branded sex slaves.

An emotional Nancy Salzman told a judge in federal court in Brooklyn that she teamed up with Keith Raniere, the NXIVM group's self-styled spiritual leader, because she wanted to help people improve their lives. But she admitted that she later lost her way when she joined efforts to spy on perceived enemies seeking to expose the Albany-based group as a cross between a pyramid scheme and a cult.

"It has taken some time and soul searching to come to this place," said Salzman, choking back tears. "I accept that some of what I did was not just wrong, but criminal. ... If I could go back and do it all over again, I would. But I can't."

Salzman, a registered nurse who was known as "Prefect" within NXIVM, was involved in stealing identities of the group's critics and hacking into their email accounts from 2003 to 2008, prosecutors said. They also alleged that she conspired to doctor videotapes showing her teaching NXIVM's lessons before the tapes were turned over to plaintiffs in a New Jersey lawsuit against the group.

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The plea comes about six weeks before Raniere is set to go on trial on charges alleging a secret master-slave society within NXIVM brainwashed women into having unwanted sex with him and had them branded with his initials in initiation ceremonies.

In addition, federal prosecutors today announced new child pornography charges against Raniere.

Also charged in the case are Salzman's daughter as well as Seagram liquor fortune heiress Clare Bronfman and actress Allison Mack, best known for playing a teenage friend of Superman on the "Smallville" TV series. They have all denied the allegations.

Salzman apparently won't testify for the government: There was no agreement to cooperate as part of the guilty plea to a conspiracy charge that carries an estimated maximum term of 41 months in prison under sentencing guidelines.

Raniere, 58, was arrested in Mexico in 2018 and is being held without bail in Brooklyn on sex-trafficking charges. At the time of his capture, Mack was living with him at a luxury villa in Puerto Vallarta, according to court papers.

An NXIVM bio of Salzman posted on the internet says she was a consultant to New York state and major corporations "until she met Keith Raniere and discovered an approach to personal growth that yielded powerful and permanent results."

Sentencing for Salzman was set for July 10.

- AP