A Wrench in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn Conspiracy Theory

Edward Jay Epstein suggested it—but now he’s backpedaling. Christopher Dickey reports.

Claude Paris / AP Photo

In the old days of newspapers, when crusty editors had to half-shout above the clatter of typewriters, they’d tell young reporters that some stories were just “too good to check.” The more you’d look into them, the less solid they’d become, until a tale of atrocious conspiracy that had seemed at first glance to be utterly limpid would get lost in the murk of disputed facts and conflicting memories.

As Edward Jay Epstein tried to turn a sensational article he published in The New York Review of Books last December into a longer treatise about “what really happened” to former French presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn at a Manhattan hotel on May 14, 2011, he must have felt like he’d been sucked deep into the sludge. As we see in the resulting e-pamphlet, Three Days in May: The DSK Thriller, to be published Monday, the core of the story just didn’t check out the way it was supposed to.

The strong implication of Epstein’s earlier piece was that Nafissatou Diallo, the 32-year-old African-immigrant maid at the Sofitel hotel who claims Strauss-Kahn forced her to give him oral sex and tried to rape her, was part of a conspiracy to ruin him. This wasn’t stated explicitly in the New York Review piece, but it’s what hacks call “the takeaway”—the impression the story left on the reader.

After the incident, and his arrest, Strauss-Kahn was forced to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund, and his political career came to a dead stop. A few weeks later, criminal charges against him were dropped in the United States, but he still faces a civil suit in New York. He claims that his less-than-seven-minute sexual encounter with this woman he’d never met before was consensual. To believe him, you’d have to buy the line that Diallo took one look at his potbellied, 60-something naked body fresh out of the shower and just volunteered to go down on her knees. But apparently even DSK no longer believes she was a willing part of a conspiracy, and for that matter, neither does Epstein.

Last Friday Epstein published an article in the British newspaper The Guardian that he said was based on a two-hour interview with Strauss-Kahn earlier this month, on April 13 to be precise. Epstein reported that DSK “now accepts” that his enemies didn’t set up the encounter with Diallo. In Three Days, Epstein goes on to write, “Even if it is highly implausible that DSK’s sexual engagement with the maid could have been planned in advance, it remains possible that there was an after-the-fact conspiracy to shape its consequences to destroy DSK’s political career.”

So, hmm, if the maid wasn’t in on the deal, what happened?

And, double hmm, according to the website of the daily Le Parisien on Sunday, some of DSK’s cronies are now saying he never gave an interview to the Guardian or to Epstein, or not exactly. If one reads between the lines of the blind quotes attributed to members of DSK’s “entourage,” it appears that if Strauss-Kahn did meet with Epstein (and I am betting that he did), he now regrets being quoted.

For those of us who have covered this story in exhaustive and exhausting detail from the beginning, there are, to be sure, some interesting questions raised in the Epstein narrative, but there are very few answers. According to Epstein’s account, Strauss-Kahn lost one of his seven cellphones the afternoon of the incident. This is critical to the conspiracy theory: it contends that someone was out to get DSK’s phone, perhaps to keep it from being examined for bugs. Records that Epstein obtained show that that particular BlackBerry was still at the hotel after DSK left, then suddenly shut down. It has never been found.

What happened to it? Don’t know.

And, oh, by the way, what was DSK doing with seven cellphones in the first place? That’s a question that might be interesting to answer. Or not. In any case, Epstein doesn’t ask it.

A book cited by Epstein as a source, L’Espion du Président: Au Coeur de la Police Politique de Sarkozy (The President’s Spy: At the Heart of Sarkozy’s Political Police), claims that long before the Sofitel incident, Strauss-Kahn was afraid somebody was monitoring his calls. So, according to the French book, a senior French cop named Jean-Christophe Lagarde obtained seven phones for DSK with Belgian SIM cards under someone else’s name. The cards were changed frequently, and the communications also were encrypted. But Epstein reports that Strauss-Kahn decided a few weeks before the Sofitel incident that this was getting too complicated. The phones kept going dead. So he turned off the encryption.

As we’ve written before, there’s reason to suspect that, starting long before the Sofitel incident, Sarkozy or his minions were compiling dossiers on the relentlessly rutting Strauss-Kahn. The charges DSK now faces in France for allegedly working with an “organized gang” that supplied him with prostitutes in Paris, Vienna, and Washington, D.C., result from a case that was being developed before DSK’s fateful encounter with Diallo. And one of his fellow defendants in the French prostitution case, it is worth noting, is that very same senior police official, Lagarde, who reportedly supplied DSK with the Belgian SIM cards. Lagarde also allegedly took part in some of the orgies with prostitutes, including one in Washington’s W hotel a day and a half before the Sofitel incident in New York.

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Jean-Christophe Lagarde (no relation to current IMF head Christine Lagarde) has denied any wrongdoing, and so has DSK. Paying prostitutes is not against the law in France, in fact, but organizing their activities is broadly defined as “aggravated pimping,” which is a crime. Through his lawyers DSK says he didn’t even know the women who showed up at the sex parties he attended were working girls, but in at least one text message he’s alleged to have referred to them as “matériel,” or equipment. The atmosphere of sleaze that’s accumulated around that case is thicker than the scum in the Paris sewers.

For the French press, indeed, all this is old news, and the Parisian media greeted Epstein’s Guardian piece with a collective yawn this weekend. The Socialist Party’s candidate, François Hollande, looks set to take the presidency away from Sarkozy in elections May 6, in any case, and would just as soon forget that Strauss-Kahn was once thought of as the great Socialist standard-bearer. When DSK showed up at a birthday celebration for one prominent member of the party Saturday night, several other stalwarts, including former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, reportedly “walked out.”

But the hyperactive Sarkozy is hypersensitive to these oft-repeated allegations of skullduggery. One reason he’s far behind in the polls is that he can’t shake the public perception that he’s a pugnacious little guy with a chip on his shoulder and few scruples about how he holds on to power. And his reaction to questions about the Epstein-DSK article in The Guardian tended to confirm that impression. He could have let the whole thing pass as silly and irrelevant. But no:

“I say to Mr. Strauss-Kahn, ‘Go tell it to a judge and spare the French people your comments,’” Sarkozy told a campaign rally Saturday. In an interview with Le Parisien published Sunday morning, Sarkozy went on some more about DSK. “When you are presumed to have done what Mr. Strauss-Kahn is accused of, one ought to have the modesty to be quiet,” said the sitting president. “The fact that he dares to speak out shows he’s understood nothing. I wish bon courage to Mr. Hollande with such support as that. Mrs. Diallo, is she a great activist of the UMP [Sarkozy’s party]? Frankly, who could think that it’s me who organized that? This kind of talk is vulgar.”

Indeed, when you check this story out, “vulgar” is the word that comes to mind almost any way you look at it.