International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and charged, yesterday, for sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid, in a scandal that appeared to wreck his hopes of running for president of France.
The charges threatened to create a leadership vacuum at the IMF, overseer of the global economic system, and threw wide open the French presidential election next April, for which opinion polls had made Strauss-Kahn the front-runner.
New York police spokesman Paul Browne said Strauss-Kahn was arrested at 2:15 a.m. EDT yesterday on charges of a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. “We must wait until things settle and see if it’s true or a provocation, one of Strauss-Kahn’s French-based lawyers, Leon Lef Forster, said. “We must be especially careful not to get into a media circus and we must wait until things are clear.”
A 32-year-old maid filed a sexual assault complaint after fleeing the $3,000-a-night hotel suite at the Sofitel in Times Square where the alleged incident occurred around 1 p.m. EDT on Saturday, Browne said. He told Reuters: “She told detectives he came out of the bathroom naked, ran down a hallway to the foyer where she was, pulled her into a bedroom and began to sexually assault her, according to her account.
“She pulled away from him and he dragged her down a hallway into the bathroom where he engaged in a criminal sexual act, according to her account to detectives. He tried to lock her into the hotel room.”
Strauss-Kahn does not have diplomatic immunity, Browne said. He was expected to be brought before a state court yesterday. The woman, who had not been named, was treated in hospital for minor injuries, Browne said.
In New York, police spokesman Browne said: “The NYPD realized he had fled, he had left his cell phone behind. We learned he was on an Air France plane. They held the plane and he was taken off and is now being held in police custody for questioning.”
Strauss-Kahn was on his way to Europe for a meeting yesterday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the European debt crisis, and then was to attend a euro zone finance ministers meeting in Brussels today.
Strauss-Kahn appeared to have fled the hotel after the incident, the police spokesman said. According to New York state law, a criminal sexual act carries a potential sentence of 15-20 years, the same as attempted rape. Unlawful imprisonment carries a potential sentence of three to five years.
Strauss-Kahn apologized to the woman, Piroska Nagy, and his wife, French television personality Anne Sinclair, as well as to IMF employees for the trouble he had caused.
One of his lawyers, Benjamin Brafman, told Reuters that, his client “will plead not guilty.” The 62-year-old Socialist, a key player in the response to the 2007-9 global financial meltdown and in Europe’s debt crisis, was taken off an Air France plane about to leave for Paris from John F Kennedy International Airport on Saturday.
The news caused shock and disbelief in France, where a government spokesman called for caution and respect for the presumption of innocence. “The news we received from New York last night struck like a thunderbolt,” said Socialist leader Martine Aubry, appealing for party unity.
Francois Bayrou, a centrist opponent of Strauss-Kahn, said: “All this is completely astounding, immensely troubling and distressing. If the facts prove true … it’s something degrading for all women. It’s terrible for the image of France.”
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said her rival’s presidential hopes had been crushed. Strauss-Kahn and Le Pen had led recent opinion polls ahead of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, even though the chief of the International Monetary Fund had yet to declare his candidacy.
The Fund said in a statement on its website that it “remains fully functioning and operational,” and had no comment on the case. The allegation is a major embarrassment to the IMF, which had authorised billions of dollars of lending to troubled countries and played a major role in the euro zone debt crisis.
It follows a statement on Thursday that the IMF’s No. 2, John Lipsky, plans to step down in August when his term ends. A crisis of leadership at the Fund would especially worry European countries, given Strauss-Kahn’s pivotal role in brokering bailouts for Iceland, Hungary, Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
Popularly known by his initials DSK, the IMF managing director had been expected to declare by late June if he would run for president of France. The latest opinion polls ranked him as a clear winner over conservative incumbent Sarkozy.
“The case and the charges … mark the end of his campaign and pre-campaign for the presidency and will most likely prompt the IMF to ask him to leave his post,” National Front leader Le Pen told i-Tele television.
Conservative Trade Minister Pierre Lellouche said: “I think we have to grant DSK the presumption of innocence. If all this were true it would be damning.” Even Strauss-Kahn’s political allies were pessimistic.
“The most likely outcome is that this case will stick and even if he pleads not guilty, which he may, he won’t be able to be candidate for the Socialist primary for the presidency and he won’t be able to stay at the IMF,” said prominent Socialist Jacques Attali.
If Strauss-Kahn were out of the race, leading candidates for the Socialist presidential ticket include party leader Aubry, left-wing veteran Francois Hollande and Segolene Royal, and the candidate beaten by Sarkozy in 2007.
Strauss-Kahn took over the IMF in November 2007 for a five-year term scheduled to end next year. Before that, he was a French finance minister, member of the French National Assembly and a professor of economics.
He has faced controversy before. In 2008, he apologized for “an error of judgment” after an affair with a female IMF economist who was his subordinate. An inquiry cleared him of harassment and abuse of power, but he was warned by the fund’s board of member countries against further improper conduct.
Since taking over the Fund, he has won praise for putting it at the center of efforts to tackle the global financial meltdown. He introduced sweeping changes to ensure that countries swamped by the crisis had access to emergency loans.
He has overseen changes that have given emerging market countries, such as China, India and Brazil, greater voting power in the IMF, and weighed into thornier issues by urging China to let its currency rise in a dispute with the United States.