In the simplest terms, it's been set up as a battle of moralities: the poor immigrant black African housekeeper versus the rich, white Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with the principals and their lawyers going mano a mano in a trial presently scheduled to begin July 18.
This side of the Atlantic, Americans have been thumping themselves on the back for the supposedly robust ethos of one-law-for-rich-and-poor-alike that has seen Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. pressing charges of rape and kindred sexual offenses against the powerful former managing director of the IMF and candidate for the French presidency. A New York judge set stringent and costly conditions of bail for the accused. If convicted, Strauss-Kahn faces a prison term.
Meanwhile, some French whine, without any convincing evidence, that DSK is the victim of conspiracy. Others say this is a wake-up call. Emboldened feminists roll out charges that rich French men regularly get away with serious unwanted sexual onslaughts, dint of money, power and cultural attitudes.
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Of course, money counts in the justice system, both sides of the Atlantic. More rich people probably end up in prisons in the U.S. than in France, but most rich crooks don't. They don't even get charged. Ask the bankers, bonds rating agencies or hedge fund operators who bankrupted America with egregious fraud in 2008. All in all, it's still surprising that the alleged assault in a fancy hotel wasn't promptly covered up, as generally happens, whether the perp is French, American, Arab or indeed African. The difference may have been a new police investigator, a new Manhattan DA, a new union rep, video cameras in the hallway or some variable making it impossible for the hotel to hush it up.
DSK is married to a very rich woman, Anne Sinclair, granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg, Picasso's principal art dealer through the late 1920s and 1930s. Loyal to her man, vocally complaisant about his sexual activities during their marriage, she seems set to spend what it takes. The accuser is poor and comes from a poor family in Guinea. Her first lawyer — Jeffrey Shapiro, rather mysteriously described as a “family friend” — is now off the case. So is the well-known civil rights lawyer, Norman Siegel. Neither will say why. As CounterPunch's Pam Martens reported Monday, “Siegel, a stalwart defender of the First Amendment, was uncharacteristically sparse in his explanation by phone: 'I can only say I am not representing her.'”
Enter Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who recently laid out the arguments for a deal with some verve in Newsweek:
“… my sense is that the victim would like a big payday. Why does she want to make a deal now? Why not wait until the conviction and then sue? [Because] the defendant doesn't have much money. All the money is his wife's money. And if you win a suit — let's assume she wins a $10 million judgment against him. She's not going to collect it. He'll go bankrupt. Whereas if she settles the case, the wife pays up. So the difference is between getting, say, a million right now from the wife, or $10 million from the husband, which the lawyer has to spend the rest of his life chasing.”
A reporter from Le Figaro asked Dershowitz, “How to seal such an agreement without obstructing justice?” And the professor responded, “This is possible through a parent who does not fall under the jurisdiction of New York. The family members of DSK in Paris, for example, do not. If they try to reach an agreement directly with the New York lawyer, they can be charged with obstruction. But they can negotiate directly with the family of the complainant outside the state of New York or Guinea. It is an extremely delicate dance to lead … [the prosecutor] cannot prevent the family from making an agreement. All he can do is threaten to open an investigation for obstruction of justice.
“He can say: 'If ever I hear of an explicit agreement or implicit exchange of money in order to buy the silence of the victim, you will go to jail.' Then each risk up to five years in prison. But it is still difficult for the prosecutor to stop the agreement … [the woman's lawyer] may want to see justice done, but ultimately, money is more important. When he said he was cooperating with the prosecutor, it was just a message to the defense that said he expected an offer.”
So who has the housekeeper now got representing her? None other than Thompson Wigdor, a New York law firm, which in Martens' words “represents the management of large multinational companies against their employees, while simultaneously representing the lone employee fighting for justice against, uh, large multinational companies — a David v. Goliath firm or Goliath v. David firm, depending on the particular day's press release.”
Martens emphasizes that these are aggressive, well-credentialed lawyers who have scored big wins. She knows what she's talking about. Before retirement, she worked for years on Wall Street and saw close-up how the big firms used legal muscle to crushed efforts to bring them to book for sexual discrimination and harassment.
In substantive terms, the prime obstruction to a deal is the Manhattan DA, Cyrus Vance Jr., son of a former secretary of state and most definitely a member of the WASP legal elite. He's a favorite of upper tier liberals. Endorsing his bid to become DA were such figures as Gloria Steinem, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, Caroline Kennedy and former mayor David Dinkins. Vance will certainly be reluctant to have his reputation tarnished in a very high profile case by rolling over in some deal slathered with Mme Sinclair's cash or that's clearly designed to outflank the implacable march of justice and the eagerness of progressives to see DSK locked away.
We can assume that the accuser is being buffeted by advocates of possibly opposing strategies. Of course, her formal attorney, Kenneth Thompson of Thompson Wigdor, has her ear. According to Martens, “there is no evidence that her colleagues at the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council union are able to stay in touch with her and provide her a support network.” The New York Times has reported her brothers in Guinea have been unable to reach her on her cell phone. We can assume that the DA's office knows where she is; therefore, the office is in a position to make her aware of the legal stakes and issues involved.
There is a recent interesting semi-parallel story. In February, the U.S. government was able to spring CIA agent Raymond Davis from a Pakistani jail. He was charged with shooting to death two Pakistanis in Lahore; he claimed they were trying to kill him at the end of February. Informed sources told CounterPunch's Shaukat Qadir that a price tag of about $ 1.5 million per family was paid with U.S. citizenship — for a dozen or more members of each family, with job guarantees for those of age, and education opportunities guaranteed for children — more than they could ever dream of and sufficiently tempting for them to pardon the killer.
Money in sufficient quantity rarely loses its persuasive powers.