article

07.03.11

Did DSK’s Accuser Have a Financial Motive?

Investigators believe a sexual encounter did take place between a hotel maid and the former IMF director, but they haven’t found evidence of premeditated blackmail, reports John Solomon.

Prosecutors in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case remain convinced they have solid evidence of a sexual encounter with a luxury hotel maid but, despite having spent extensive time investigating whether the victim was engaged in a financial extortion plot, they have yet to find any substantive proof, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Investigators began exploring whether the victim had financial motives long before stories surfaced in recent days suggesting she might have been a gold-digger – even a prostitute – who staged the encounter, sources told The Daily Beast.

While the investigative efforts uncovered a trail of previously unknown phones tied to the alleged victim as well as suspicious financial transactions, and even a prison call with a drug suspect in which the idea of financial gain was discussed, no evidence has been found to suggest premeditated extortion, sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Investigators “began looking at that some time ago and don’t see that here so far,” said one source. “Whenever you have a very wealthy defendant who is being accused of a sex crime, you begin looking at everything, including did money change hands between the victim and the defendant when [the sexual encounter] happened? Or was someone paid to make it happen?”

Prosecutors also have testimony from hotel colleagues that bolster the maid’s contention that she believed Strauss-Kahn had already left his hotel suite when she entered to clean the room moments before the alleged incident—undercutting the suggestion of a premeditated plot, the sources said.

Nonetheless, prosecutors are now deeply uncertain whether the victim could withstand cross-examination during a high-profile trial after making a series of false claims to them in recent weeks, and recanting an earlier allegation about a rape that supposedly took place in her native Guinea as well as admitting she falsified information on an asylum application.

The prosecution team recognizes “a really terrible witness can still be a victim,” but now has to decide in the coming weeks if the maid “is someone we can put on the stand and trust,” one source directly familiar with the case said.

The sources’ description of the current state of play comes as Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office faces questions about whether the DA’s office adequately checked all the evidence or rushed to an indictment too soon.

The Daily Beast has learned that, until last week, investigators didn’t seek electronic keycard evidence for rooms the alleged victim cleaned at the hotel the day of the alleged attack, other than Strauss-Kahn’s. That omission has taken on new significance as the maid’s account changed.

The maid originally alleged that on May 14, Strauss-Kahn, one of the world’s most powerful men as a leading candidate for president of France and then-director of the International Monetary Fund, exited a shower in his luxury suite at the Sofitel hotel in New York City, grabbed her from behind and sexually assaulted her after she entered to clean his suite.

Bolstered by significant forensic evidence that included Strauss-Kahn’s DNA, prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s office secured an indictment just days after the attack. But in recent weeks, their case began to unravel as investigators dug deeper into how the maid immigrated to the United States under a political asylum claim that included some false information.

High-powered lawyers for Strauss-Kahn had by then already combed New York’s African immigrant world, uncovering their own evidence challenging the alleged victim’s credibility.

As prosecutors’ doubts mounted, the DA’s office last week disclosed to defense lawyers that they believed there were problems with the victim’s testimony and agreed to loosen the terms of Strauss-Kahn’s bail.

Meanwhile, as questions surfaced about her background, the alleged victim began to change her story.

After weeks of offering a consistent narrative about exactly what she had done after fleeing Strauss-Kahn’s room on May 14, she suddenly made some changes to that account, the sources said.

There is still overwhelming evidence of a sexual encounter but, with the changes in her story, it has become more of a he-said-she-said.

The maid had told her hotel superiors, hotel security, police detectives, prosecutors and the grand jury that, after Strauss-Kahn forced her to have oral sex, she managed to flee his room and hide around the corner where a housekeeping supervisor found her after Strauss-Kahn had left the hotel. But according to a letter prosecutors placed in the court file Friday she stated that, after the attack and before the housekeeper found her, she went and cleaned another room.

She also admitted that her application for asylum had included embellished and false information, recanting a story she had told investigators about how she had been raped in Guinea years ago.

“In interviews in connection with the investigation of this case, the complainant admitted that the above factual information, which she provided in connection with her asylum application, was false,” the prosecutors wrote in the letter.

(The admission that she provided false information on her asylum application could spur the federal government to reconsider her asylum status.)

One source close to the investigation said prosecutors proceeded quickly to indictment to ensure Strauss-Kahn didn’t leave the country again, as he had tried in the hours after the alleged incident, and because the initial evidence was so strong that inaction would have been seen as favoritism.

That source described the evolution of the case this way: “Her story was corroborated by witnesses in the hotel, electronic evidence, and forensic evidence... There is still overwhelming evidence of a sexual encounter but, with the changes in her story, it has become more of a he-said-she-said.”

While much of the case’s unraveling has involved the victim’s own conduct and statements, there are signs of missteps or oversights by authorities, too.

The prosecutors sought the additional hotel key records on Wednesday, informed defense lawyers about the victim’s credibility problems on Thursday, then got the hotel security key logs for the other rooms the next day, one source said. Prosecutors “may have undercut the victim’s story before fully checking it out,” the source said.

The logs, according to the source, appear to track the maid’s original story. They show the maid entered room 2820—around the corner from Strauss-Kahn’s luxury suite—at around 10:30 a.m., then again at 11 a.m., and then at 11:30 a.m.

She then used her key to enter Strauss-Kahn’s room around 12:06 p.m. A room service colleague has told authorities he went into Strauss-Kahn’s suite at around noon to pick up dinner trays, saw no sign of Strauss-Kahn and then told the maid the room was empty and OK to be cleaned, sources told the Beast.

Other hotel witnesses said the woman told them she believed the room was empty and was even fearful she might lose her job for walking in on a VIP client, sources have previously said.

The maid alleged the sexual assault occurred between 12:06 p.m., when she entered the room to clean it, and 12:28 p.m., when Strauss-Kahn hurriedly left his room and checked out. Witnesses at the hotel checkout counter told investigators that the normally prim and proper Strauss-Kahn appeared so rushed to leave that he still had toothpaste foam around his mouth, one source said.

The maid has alleged that she managed to flee Strauss-Kahn’s room shortly before he left and hid around the corner, right near room 2820 which she had been cleaning earlier, sources said.

A supervisor told prosecutors she found the upset maid near a linen closet outside room 2806, Strauss-Kahn’s suite, shortly before 12:30 p.m. and that she took the alleged victim back to Strauss-Kahn’s room to calm her and debrief her about the incident, sources have said. Hotel colleagues reported the woman spit on the floor and walls in front of them, and appeared so traumatized that she wanted to vomit.

The hotel key card records that prosecutors belatedly got from the Sofitel on Friday show the maid keyed room 2820, which she had cleaned hours earlier, at 12:26 p.m. and, during the same minute, also keyed room 2806 where Strauss-Kahn had stayed – which would support the assertion that her supervisor took her there, according to a source directly familiar with the evidence.

“She didn’t have time to clean 2820 again. The key cards show her supervisor took her to Strauss-Kahn’s room almost immediately. And it would not have made sense to clean 2820 again, she had done it earlier between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., which would suggest she simply got confused,” the source said.

But such changes in her account coupled with the evidence of lying about a prior rape and the hints of a financial motive revealed during the call to prison could give defense lawyers plenty to create reasonable doubt with jurors. Did she engage in consensual oral sex and then was coached to spit to ensure DNA evidence could be collected? Did she make a call to one or more conspirators during her multiple entries into room 2820? Was her original story simply rehearsed to garner sympathy with colleagues and investigators, only to unravel later when conflicting evidence emerged? Does the prison call suggest she habitually cashed in on VIP hotel client with lots of money?  

A source familiar with evidence from the hotel said the Sofitel had done a background criminal check before hiring the maid and established she was legally in the country. She later told the hotel she had won an asylum claim, the source said.

Even with the maid’s changing account, prosecutors remain confident in the general timeline they presented to the grand jury when they indicted Strauss-Kahn, one source said. The bigger issues that unnerved prosecutors began when the woman admitted she lied on her asylum application and when she recanted her own tale of a rape years ago in Guinea.

And investigators in the prosecutor’s office also began following a financial trail that linked the woman to suspected criminal elements in the drug world. They found several phones in the woman’s name that she hadn’t told them about as well as tens of thousands of dollars in suspicious deposits into her banking accounts, one source said.

The investigators began checking calls on those other phones, and eventually found that the woman, the day after the alleged attack, had made a call to a detention center in Arizona where one of her male acquaintances was being held on drug charges, according to the sources.

Because most inmate calls are normally recorded, the investigators sought and found a prison recording of the call. When they got it, the recording was in the woman’s native Guinean language of Fulani so a translator was summoned, a source said.

A rough translation arrived on Wednesday and it included a section in which the woman hinted at a financial motive, suggesting Strauss-Kahn was wealthy and telling her incarcerated friend—who she was possibly involved with romantically—that she knew what she was doing. By that time, she had already hired a private attorney, the sources said. The woman hired one attorney almost immediately, and then switched to a second lawyer shortly thereafter. Some of the evidence that led prosecutors to their concerns actually originated with the maid’s second attorney, the sources said.

While investigators suspect the reference in the prison call was an allusion to the potential of a lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn, it was the last of several troubling discoveries that prompted prosecutors to divulge concerns they had with the alleged victim to the Strauss-Kahn defense team on Thursday.

Prosecutors have little regret about the speed at which they brought the original charges, seeing the DNA evidence and corroborating witness testimony of hotel workers as solid, even now, one source said. “We just don’t know if [the maid] would be credible at all on the witness stand. And this case can’t be made unless she can credibly testify against DSK,” the source said.

Relations between the prosecution and the alleged victim have soured in recent days. On Friday, her lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, publicly accused the district attorney’s office of being too fearful to pursue Strauss-Kahn.

Prosecutors must decide whether they can prevail at trial with the maid as their star witness given her credibility issues. If not, they are likely to dismiss the charges.

In that scenario, the victim would still have the recourse of suing Strauss-Kahn in civil court.