Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose indictment on sexual assault charges reshaped French politics and touched off a global scramble to replace him as head of the International Monetary Fund, was released from house arrest Friday after prosecutors acknowledged serious problems in their case.
In a brief court hearing, New York Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said her office no longer trusted the testimony of Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, a maid at the Manhattan Sofitel hotel who alleged that the former IMF managing director violently attacked her on the afternoon of May 14.
As the investigation proceeded in recent weeks, Illuzzi-Orbon said, there had been “salient, confirmed impeachment” of the woman’s story — from a concocted tale of political repression and gang rape in Guinea that was used to gain political asylum in the United States in 2004 to her shifting account of what happened on the day of the alleged attack.
Prosecutors say they still believe a “sexual encounter” occurred between the two, something “corroborated by forensic evidence” collected after Strauss-Kahn, 62, was arrested, Illuzzi-Orbon said in prepared remarks submitted to the court.
But the difficulty of supporting a rape charge without credible testimony from the woman involved led prosecutors to agree that Strauss-Kahn should be released from the house arrest, electronic monitoring and armed guard that have governed his movements since he was indicted by a grand jury. His $1 million cash bail is being returned.
“The strength of the case has been affected by the substantial credibility issues relating to the complaining witness,” Illuzzi-Orbon said.
For now the charges — violent sexual felonies with a possible 25-year prison term as punishment — remain intact, and authorities are holding on to Strauss-Kahn’s passport so he cannot leave the United States. The next court session is scheduled for July 18.
The attorney for the hotel maid, Kenneth Thompson, lashed out at the district attorney’s decision to release Strauss-Kahn. While acknowledging that his client erred in lying to prosecutors, he said that had no bearing on whether she was raped.
“The victim here made some mistakes,” he said. “That does not mean she is not a rape victim.”
Thompson said there were photos, medical tests and other evidence of a forced sexual encounter, including vaginal bruising and a torn ligament in the woman’s shoulder.
He said his client may now talk publicly about her version of events because “we do not have confidence that they will ever put Dominique Strauss-Kahn on trial. . . . [New York District Attorney] Cyrus Vance is too afraid to try this case. He is afraid he is going to lose.”
From the moment Strauss-Kahn was pulled off of an Air France jet headed for Europe and taken into police custody, his arrest rippled through international economic and political circles.
He and his wife, Anne Sinclair, a longtime French television journalist, are among Europe’s political and intellectual elite, with family ties to the continent’s top artists, intellectuals and financiers. His long-standing reputation as a womanizer mattered little in French society, and the arrest touched off a transatlantic debate that pitted European sexual mores against the “perp walk” culture of American law enforcement. Some in France were outraged at the pictures of one of their country’s top politicians paraded in handcuffs before television cameras — images prohibited under French media rules until a person is convicted.
But the damage was done.
The French Socialist Party looked for a new standard bearer, the IMF reshuffled the leadership team negotiating hundred-billion-dollar bailouts in Europe, and finance ministers and heads of state began conferring over who would replace him at the powerful finance agency.
In France on Friday, political analysts digested the latest turn of events with talk of a revived Strauss-Kahn bid for the presidency, or at least a reentry into politics that would be a stark reversal from six weeks ago, when he was headed to Rikers Island jail and seemed doomed from any future in public office.
In the United States, there was speculation about the cloud now hanging over Vance, son of a former secretary of state and scion of a powerful Democratic Party family who might have to live down the suggestion that he ruined the reputation of one of the world’s most influential men for a charge that didn’t stick.
At a press conference after the hearing, Vance in brief remarks tried to navigate a treacherous divide — protecting the right of an alleged sexual-assault victim to see justice done with the fact that a high-profile prosecution was coming unglued.
“Our prosecutors will continue their investigation into these alleged crimes and will do so until we have uncovered all relevant facts,” he said.
Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys said the day’s events had brought their client a long way toward freedom. The inconsistencies in the woman’s story were detailed in a Thursday letter from Vance to Strauss-Kahn’s legal team, a disclosure required under a Supreme Court ruling that evidence in a defendant’s favor be turned over by prosecutors.
Given the “substantial lies” acknowledged by the prosecution, “today’s disclosures only further confirm that he will be fully exonerated,” Strauss-Kahn attorneys William W. Taylor III and Benjamin Brafman said in a statement.
A person familiar with the case who would not speak for the record said prosecutors had not yet decided to drop the case completely and may, for example, still seek Strauss-Kahn’s conviction on a lesser misdemeanor offense. But defense attorneys are expected to oppose that.
It was not immediately clear whether Strauss-Kahn would remain in New York or return to his home in Georgetown.
The woman’s name has not been disclosed by prosecutors. It is Washington Post policy to withhold the names of alleged rape victims.
At the IMF, staff prepared for the Tuesday arrival of new managing director Christine Lagarde, her own career diverted from a seat as finance minister in the French cabinet to what may prove an accidental milestone as the first woman to run the fund.
After the emotional whipsaw of seeing their former boss arrested, only to be freed and potentially exonerated, staff around the IMF’s 19th Street headquarters said they were eager to put the episode behind them. The intervening weeks drew particular attention to the agency’s management — and whether its board of directors was lax in letting Strauss-Kahn remain in office after he admitted to an affair with an employee in 2008.
Said one IMF employee, who would not allow his name to be used because he was not authorized to speak for the record: “We have moved on.”
Staff writers Colum Lynch in New York and Cezary Podkul contributed to this report.