DSK: The Scandal that Brought Down Dominique Strauss-Kahn
By John Solomon
288 pages. Thomas Dunne Books. $26.
When New York prosecutors finally dismissed the criminal case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn last August, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the case. After all, my great colleagues at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and I had secured the first interview with the hotel maid, reviewed police reports and forensic evidence, and created an exhaustive timeline, gleaned in part from hotel security-card records.
It turns out, however, that there was an entire subplot we had not seen in as the rollercoaster legal case played out frenetically on the world stage. And when you slowed down the drama—like a sporting coach watching game films the morning after a loss—new storylines and evidence emerged.
In my new book, DSK: The Scandal that Brought Down Dominique Strauss-Kahn, due out Tuesday from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, I try to retell the scandal in narrative fashion from the perspective of its frontline players. Here are a few of my favorite revelations about DSK that I learned in rereporting the case.
1. Before the New York criminal case fell apart, DSK tried to settle with the hotel maid.
Defense lawyers Ben Brafman and Bill Taylor became more certain the case was coming apart when Kenneth Thompson, the hotel maid’s lawyer, reached out to them, unexpectedly, in mid-June to explore the possibility of reaching a monetary settlement on the civil side of the case. Thompson was becoming concerned the charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be dropped, unable to extinguish from his mind prosecutor Joan Illuzzi’s statement that she couldn’t put Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid, on the witness stand. Thompson knew no sex assault prosecution could succeed if the victim couldn’t be put on the stand. So he wanted to at least explore the second-best option for getting justice for his client, a civil settlement.
Diallo hadn’t yet sued, but both sides knew a suit against DSK was likely at some point. So both signed nondisclosure agreements for the talks, and they met on June 15 to explore the parameters of a settlement process. Thompson and his partner, Douglas Wigdor, suggested some names of high-profile legal mediators, former judges mostly, who could oversee the talks.
Brafman and Taylor asked what sort of figure Diallo might be seeking, but Thompson was nowhere ready to talk money. A few days later, DSK’s lawyers countered with a different name for a mediator, a former prosecutor whom Diallo’s lawyers were also comfortable with. Still, DSK’s lawyers continued to press for a dollar figure to be put on the table.
Thompson wasn’t willing to suggest one yet, preferring instead to focus on the mediation process. Thompson did not, and legally could not, suggest that Diallo would drop the criminal charges in exchange for a civil settlement. Instead, the two sides carefully talked about approaching the prosecutors together if a civil deal was struck.
It’s unclear whether DSK had a real intention of settling with Diallo at that moment, but the discussions allowed Taylor and Brafman to spot the first signs of weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
Eventually, the magnitude of the problems would become clearer and the DSK legal team would use targeted news leaks and its communications with the district attorney’s office to fan the flames of dissension between the victim and prosecution team. The goal was to imply Diallo had even more secrets and lies, and that the case was unwinnable in court.
Thompson juggled the two fronts, telling neither the district attorney nor DSK’s lawyers of his conversations with the other. It eventually would come back to bite him.
Just a few weeks before the case was dismissed in August, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers dropped one last bombshell on the prosecutors, divulging that Thompson and Wigdor had approached them in mid-June, less than a week after Diallo admitted to prosecutors her first lies, to discuss a possible civil settlement.
Those initial discussions were covered by a nondisclosure agreement signed by both sides, but Brafman and Taylor knew such agreements weren’t enforceable in a criminal case.
By late July, the two defense lawyers and their investigators had uncovered their own evidence suggesting Diallo might have developed a financial motive, at least after the incident. And they had seen Diallo’s lawyer, Thompson, quoted as saying flatly his client had had no financial motive in the case. Taylor and Brafman decided Thompson’s public comments freed them from their commitment to the previous nondisclosure agreement with Diallo’s lawyers.
Their need to keep the civil confidentiality agreement was outweighed by their obligation as defense attorneys to alert prosecutors to additional evidence of a possible financial motive. So they divulged to DA Cyrus Vance’s office the existence of the earlier talks about a possible civil settlement that had occurred back in June.
At that time, Thompson and Wigdor were only interested in setting up a process through a mediator to govern settlement talks while Brafman and Taylor were seeking an estimate for how much Diallo might be seeking in money. No matter the specifics, the revelations once again caught prosecutors off guard. And on Aug. 5, prosecutor Illuzzi belatedly sent Thompson a letter demanding he turn over any correspondence or records about the settlement discussions. Thompson saw it as an unwarranted intrusion on his attorney-client privilege, and he never complied.
2. DSK admitted Diallo tried to flee his hotel room, stoking lawyers’ worries.
Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers saw in the timeline of the case significant evidence to build a defense. It is clear that Strauss-Kahn had come to the Sofitel for a weekend of leisurely sex and flirtation, which might lead him to accept one last sexual favor from a housekeeper before he left town to return to work and think nothing of it. After all, DSK called his daughter, completely calm and unrattled, less than two minutes after the sexual episode ended in the room to tell her he might be late for their planned lunch at a nearby restaurant. Strauss-Kahn’s casualness about the whole matter was evident in an interview with his biographer, Michael Taubman, that was published as part of a book in France released over the 2011 holidays titled DSK Affairs: The Counter-Investigation.
But there is one part in the Taubman recounting that could come back to haunt DSK and his lawyers if the Diallo lawsuit proceeds to civil trial. In one passage, Strauss-Kahn appears to admit that Diallo tried to flee the room.
The defense lawyers alerted Strauss-Kahn to the possibility he might have been exposed to the HIV virus or other sexually transmitted diseases.
“Exiting the bathroom in Adam’s clothes, the managing director of the IMF finds himself face to face with Nafissatou Diallo whom he sees for the first time. The young Guinean appears surprised, but not at all terrified. DSK is not prudish. He does not take umbrage at the incongruous presence of the housekeeper in a presidential suite that is still occupied. Nafissatou Diallo, crossing the room, heads toward the exit. But she hardly hurries,” Taubman writes.
If an accurate account of what DSK said, it would appear to corroborate what Diallo told prosecutors and me: that she tried to leave the room before Strauss-Kahn closed the door. Such an admission by a powerful world leader could very well be interpreted by a jury as evidence that he forced the poor, immigrant housekeeper to submit to a sexual encounter.
3. Conspiracy debunked: BlackBerry wasn’t stolen, DSK left it in a cab.
Good lawyers don’t harbor conspiracy theories, only questions that need to be answered, maybe under oath or through cross-examination. And so they often wince when someone, in the absence of the answers, constructs a theory that sounds like a premature defense for their client.
One famous theory floated on Strauss-Kahn’s behalf illustrates the potential for causing heartburn for the defense. It surfaced around Thanksgiving 2011, about three months after the criminal charges were dropped. That’s when writer Edward Jay Epstein, viewed in many circles as sympathetic to Strauss-Kahn, published his story in the respected New York Review of Books that raised the possibility that Diallo or Sofitel employees may have conspired to steal Strauss-Kahn’s IMF BlackBerry in search of incriminating evidence of affairs or other wrongdoing that could sink his presidential ambitions.
Epstein doesn’t quite articulate the full-blown theory, instead leading the reader to the inevitable conclusion through a series of tantalizing facts and half-facts.
Readers are inevitably left thinking that Diallo, or her colleagues in Sofitel security, must have lifted Strauss-Kahn’s cell phone at the hotel, disabled it, and then turned it over to Strauss-Kahn’s enemies in the Sarkozy camp for exploitation of its messages. “Whatever happened to his phone, and the content on it, his political prospects were effectively ended by the events of that day,” Epstein concludes.
But such conspiracy theories carry risks for the people they were intended to support, let alone the defense lawyers who might end up in court trying to distance themselves from unprovable supposition.
First, Epstein ended up making a major factual error. The “celebration” by the security officials was 13 seconds, not 3 minutes. That error forced The New York Review of Books to issue a high-profile retraction that undercut the whole article. Second, the first known call from a Sofitel official to France isn’t for nearly an hour after the phone stopped working. Sofitel security chief John Sheehan called the on-call supervisor of Sofitel’s parent, Accor, in France around 1:40 p.m. The phone stopped transmitting at 12:51 p.m.
The DSK defense team’s own fact gathering pointed toward a different likelihood. Strauss-Kahn made his last call on the phone at 12:15 p.m., after the sexual incident is believed to have occurred with Diallo inside Suite 2806, and the housekeeper is believed to have fled to a nearby hallway on the 28th floor of the hotel. That makes it hard for her or the security guards to steal it, unless it was left behind in the hotel room after he checked out. On that point, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers also noticed in the hotel security videotape footage that Strauss-Kahn can be seen departing the Sofitel at around 12:29 p.m., and he appears to grab a small, BlackBerry-like phone from his jacket pocket and put it to his ear briefly as a bellhop flags a taxi for him to take him to the restaurant where he planned to meet his daughter. That image leaves a strong implication that Strauss-Kahn may have still had his phone with him when he left the hotel, though he did not make another call on the device.
The lawyers also determined that the phone’s tracking signal indicated it was moving away from the hotel before its GPS transponder stopped transmitting, suggesting the phone likely left the Sofitel when Strauss-Kahn did. In fact, Strauss-Kahn didn’t notice the phone missing until after lunch. And when he finally did, his first instinct was to call his daughter Camille and ask her to return to the restaurant to check if he left it on the table or a seat. Finally, a cell phone can stop transmitting its GPS location for a much simpler reason than the high-tech disabling suggested by Epstein: if the battery runs out, if someone shuts off the phone or takes out the battery, or if the phone is put into “airplane mode,” a common practice among frequent world travelers before boarding a flight.
The cumulative evidence leads Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers to consider a much more plausible theory about the missing BlackBerry: it fell out of their client’s coat during the cab ride to see his daughter. It then shut off either because the battery was worn down or because the person who found it shut it off or removed the battery to hawk it on the street.
4. DSK’s life in prison: a letter of lament, a secret phone call, and contraband contact lenses.
Away from the rush of the investigation, Strauss-Kahn was perhaps the only player with time that first week to reflect quietly on the drama. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, he was placed in a solitary confinement cell in the VIP section of Rikers Island, spending his time mostly reading or watching television. He and the guards got along fine and he had few complaints, beyond the obvious loss of his freedom. Perhaps his only concern was that he did not have a pair of glasses, which made watching TV difficult. He had but one visitor the whole time. His longtime lawyer Bill Taylor made a single visit at midweek to help prepare for a planned Thursday court appearance, the second bail hearing. Strauss-Kahn smiled at seeing a familiar face.
“How are you, Dominique?” Taylor inquired.
“I’m doing fine,” the Frenchman answered in a stoic voice, refusing to display any of the wear or humiliation of being imprisoned. Taylor described the bail package that was being prepared in an effort to free him, and the two discussed legal strategy briefly. Strauss-Kahn also was worried about the IMF and the state of the debt talks.
An IMF official arranged with prison officials for DSK to make a call from his prison cell to his colleagues back in Washington so he could resign personally and apologize for the hardship his arrest had caused. They had been through so much together, including the 2008 investigation of his affair with a subordinate, and Strauss-Kahn wanted one last chance to bid farewell.
When Taylor arrived, Strauss-Kahn handed him a signed letter of resignation to formally deliver to the IMF. In perhaps the only lament during the visit, Strauss-Kahn mentioned to Taylor the troubles he was having seeing the television without eyeglasses. Taylor tried to get the prison to give Strauss-Kahn a pair of glasses, but to no avail. So he hatched a plan. He knew Strauss-Kahn would need a suit for his Thursday court appearance, so he sneaked a pair of contact lenses in with the suit. It worked. For some reason, the same prison officials who refused to give him glasses agreed to take the contacts.
5. DSK and the AIDS scare.
Near the end of the first week, right after Strauss-Kahn was finally released from Rikers Island on bail, the DSK investigators stumbled onto a piece of evidence that sent shock waves of alarm through the defense team. While researching Diallo’s past and talking to her neighbors and friends in the West African immigrant community, they discovered that she and her daughter were living in an apartment building in the Bronx where many units are subsidized by Harlem United, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and care to patients with HIV and their families.
The defense lawyers had just learned about the forensic lab results confirming a sexual encounter had occurred between their client and Diallo. So they alerted Strauss-Kahn to the possibility he might have been exposed to the HIV virus or other sexually transmitted diseases. There was little Strauss-Kahn could do at that moment. He was in house arrest, under the strictest of detention conditions. Even after those restrictions were eased in the early summer, DSK did not do much about the HIV scare. He knew reporters would be staking out his every move if he left the house and went to a doctor. So he just waited. Finally, when he returned to France in the fall, he got tested for HIV. The test results came back negative, and the Frenchman was relieved to have dodged yet another bullet.