Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his defense team have been conspicuously silent since he was accused of sexual assault this spring. But NEWSWEEK has learned his high-powered lawyers and private detectives have been scouring the evidence to look for inconsistencies that discredit the accuser’s account and unearth clues suggesting a financial motive in a case that pits one of the world’s most powerful men against an immigrant hotel housekeeper.
The behind-the-scenes work will allow the defense—if the case moves forward either in criminal or civil court—to offer an alternate storyline of what happened in Sofitel Hotel suite 2806 in New York City on May 14. Whatever theory is offered is certain to inflame an already explosive case that has gripped North America, Europe, and Africa.
It has been expected that Strauss-Kahn’s team would attempt to portray the hotel incident as a consensual encounter. Now sources familiar with Strauss-Kahn’s case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say the defense could speculate that the encounter went bad when housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo discovered she would not receive any money after oral sex with the powerful Frenchman. Strauss-Kahn’s team may also try to portray Diallo, 32, as an “earner” who tried to pick up cash and gifts to supplement her $40,000 housekeeper’s salary, creating a financial motive to interpret some of the evidence in a new light.
Strauss-Kahn’s defense team—including private detectives from the respected Guidepost Solutions firm—has been interviewing witnesses in New York’s West African immigrant community to develop a portrait of a woman who was willing to do what it took to stay in the United States and make money to support herself and her 15-year-old daughter.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office is expected to inform a court on Aug. 23 whether a criminal trial will proceed or if the charges will be dropped. Diallo’s lawyers, meanwhile, have opened the door for the defense team to go on the offensive next month in a Bronx civil court, where Diallo has filed a lawsuit accusing Strauss-Kahn of a “violent and sadistic” attack.
One key question will be why Diallo returned to the suite after Strauss-Kahn had checked out. In an interview last month, Diallo said she intended to clean the room but felt so shaken she didn’t know where to begin and instead walked outside to a linen closet, where a supervisor found her, distraught. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers may offer a different theory: Diallo went back to the suite to see if he had left money behind for her.
Kenneth Thompson, Diallo’s lawyer, said any suggestion of a consensual encounter “is utter nonsense and a desperate attempt to smear an innocent woman.” And Diallo, in an interview with NEWSWEEK last month, strongly denied that money or a financial motive was involved in the incident.
The defense has been unearthing possible inconsistencies in Diallo’s account to “outcry witnesses,” the first people she talked with afterward.
Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer, William Taylor, said “it’s neither unfair nor unusual” for the defense to conduct its own investigation and that he’s confident the case will be dismissed.
Diallo’s relationship with a now incarcerated illegal immigrant, Amara Tarawally, also might be used to build the “earner” storyline. Tarawally, who has pleaded guilty to drug charges, described Diallo in an interview as his “fiancée”—a claim Diallo denied. Although she acknowledged receiving six or seven handbags from Tarawally, she insisted she didn’t know he was using her checking account to deposit and withdraw large sums of money. Defense lawyers may try to argue that Diallo accepted handbags, calling cards, phones, or other gifts from men like Tarawally in return for favors like moving money through her account.
Even the physical evidence—which includes DNA suggestive of a sexual encounter—may be challenged. A hospital examination after the alleged attack detected redness on Diallo’s vagina, which her lawyers say was caused when Strauss-Kahn’s violently grabbed her between her legs. The defense may instead offer medical expert opinions that the inflammation was caused by something else, such as an infection or earlier consensual sexual intercourse.
Despite acknowledging to prosecutors that she lied about how she entered the country and about an earlier rape in Guinea, Diallo’s account of the alleged attack at the Sofitel has impressed prosecutors because it was consistently told several times to hotel colleagues and police in the immediate aftermath and matches the forensics.
But the defense has been unearthing possible inconsistencies in her account to “outcry witnesses,” the first people she talked with afterward. For instance, a single passage in one of the hospital worker’s notes quotes Diallo as saying Strauss-Kahn “said nothing to her during the incident.”
In her account to NEWSWEEK, Diallo said Strauss-Kahn called her beautiful and made vulgar comments about sex acts he wanted her to perform. Defense lawyers may use the hospital notes to suggest Diallo made up the statements.
The defense also has reviewed news reports worldwide seeking any inconsistencies in her account, such as foreign media interviews in which her friend Blake Diallo is quoted as saying the housekeeper told him the night of the attack that she had “scars” that were “noticeable on her body” and had “showed me her arm and I saw black and blue bruises.”
The defense is certain to contrast those accounts with the medical records, which note only inflammation to her vagina and pain to one of her shoulders, which Diallo told NEWSWEEK was hurt when Strauss-Kahn forced her to the floor and made her perform oral sex.
Blake Diallo told NEWSWEEK he had been misquoted in early reports and that the housekeeper had told him “somebody tried to rape me” and that police and doctors were “checking for evidence.”
Noted attorney and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said he originally believed dismissal was a “slam dunk” after prosecutors made disclosures July 1 about concerns they had about Nafissatou Diallo’s credibility. But after reading the extensive coverage of the case, his thinking has changed. “I would certainly not rush to dismiss it. I would conduct further investigation,” Dershowitz said.
Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in NEWSWEEK magazine.