“Les affaires interdits”
For the background to the following discussion, please see our previous post (“Room 2806” Part I). Below I try to isolate and classify the factors which led to the Manhattan Prosecutor’s abandonment of all charges against Strauss-Kahn, and some possible approaches to dealing with perpetrators in future.
Money: Strauss-Kahn was the son of a lawyer and a journalist (the circles within which he has basically remained, both socially and matrimonially). Born in a Parisian suburb, the family moved to Morocco when he was two (1951), and thence to Monaco (1960), where his father worked as a lawyer. He moved back to France when he began university. The family was well-off, but didn’t have the funds to promote him in accordance with his boundless ambition. This only became possible upon his third marriage to Anne Sinclair. Sinclair, the daughter of French Jews who had married before fleeing France shortly before World War II, is the maternal granddaughter of one of Europe’s most successful 20th-century art dealers, Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso (and was a close personal friend; the two families summered together following their return to France), Léger, Braque, and Matisse among others. His agreement to sell these artists’ works came with the stipulation that he himself would have first rights to purchase, and he thus amassed a collection of art of almost-incalculable value. Rosenberg, sensing that war was imminent, managed to get some (though not all) of his collection out of the country, shipping part of it to his London branch and another part to the U.S. (under guise of the 1939 World’s Fair). Sinclair became her grandfather’s sole heir following the death of her mother Madeline, and her net worth is estimated at around $200 million. That’s serious money, and it bought Strauss-Kahn both the political career he longed for as well as protection and – ultimately – a form of immunity from his dark proclivities, which may have become more pronounced during his years as Director of the IMF when he was “economic czar of the world.”
Power: The information about “Money” above wasn’t in the documentary, but I became curious when at the bail hearing, DSK’s lawyer noted his total assets at around $2 million before adding, almost as an afterthought, that his wife had “substantially more,” which sounded like Brafman was trying to avoid naming amounts. Serious money is a correlate of serious power – whether it is direct as in DSK’s case (the Public Information officer of the NYPD notes that at the time of his arrest, Strauss-Kahn was the “8th or 9th most powerful man in the world”) or indirect, as is the case with America’s billionaire class, many of whom prefer donating to policy think tanks and political campaigns over actually running for office, although there is increasingly some cross-over. West Virginia’s richest man, Jim Judges, is Governor; the Governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, has an estimated net worth of nearly $4 billion. And of course there is the recent example of the U.S. President.
Power can buy politicians and policies favoring the moneyed class(es) – most of Trump’s policy initiatives, implemented through Executive Orders, are of this type (rollbacks of policies which opened up federal lands to exploitation by the extractive industries, relaxation of environmental regulations favoring the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries). Trump’s sole legislative triumph was a tax measure that massively favored the rich.
Power combined with money can buy exemptions from Justice. The documentary features several former colleagues and friends (and even DSK’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette) claiming that their colleague/friend/spouse would never have engaged in the sexual behavior of which he stood accused. But did any of them actually believe that? DSK had long been known to them; was it the case that they could acknowledge he was a “conventional” French womanizer, given to serial liaisons, but not that he was what he emerges as in the Sofitel case, the Banon case and perhaps most tellingly, the Carlton hotel case? There seems to be a line between affairs with members of one’s own social class – even extending to much younger members – and the type of sex DSK preferred with women who did not belong to his social class.
Class: Strauss-Kahn’s case reminded us of that of Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier (?). While the full case against Epstein was never presented – he committed suicide in his jail cell a little over a month following arrest in July 2019 – an extensive investigation published in the Miami Herald in late 2018 by Julie Brown and Emily Michot exposed many of the details of how his “operation” functioned, with a focus on the early 21st century (2001-2005). While in contrast to DSK, Epstein had never sought political office, his myriad connections with the American (and Anglophone) super-rich and powerful (“princes and premiers”) and his own wealth (estimated at $500 million, although it has proven hard to track down given that much of it was concealed in off-shore accounts) ensured that when he was convicted in Florida in 2008, it was on much-reduced charges (one count of procurement of a minor), and he served only 13 months in the “Stockade,” during which time he was allowed to leave the jail 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, to work at the foundation he created shortly before conviction (and which was dissolved upon his release).
Also in contrast to Strauss-Kahn, Epstein was both client and ultimate procurer (with Ghislaine Maxwell acting as recruiter/groomer) for others (Strauss-Kahn was “only” a client; others did the procuring); also, Epstein specialized in underage girls, while DSK’s preference appears to have been for young adult women.
But both men sought victims from the underclass, those without money, power, or connections. And both either transported or had transported victims from one jurisdiction and/or country to another (this explains the FBI’s involvement in Epstein’s case) – in American legal parlance, this is trafficking (the French legislation and terminology is different; although DSK was “only” a client [prostitution is legal in France], he was accused of pimping [procurement], which would be more properly applied in the U.S. to Epstein).
Thus both men sexually exploited and abused women who could not fight back – in Strauss-Kahn’s case, Diallo, a refugee from the former French Guinea; of the women interviewed in the documentary concerning the Carlton affair, one was an immigrant from Morocco, where DSK spent part of his childhood, and where he and Sinclair owned a home. These women were referred to in code as “equipment,” as “dossiers,” even as “meat” (though DSK vehemently denied he had himself employed the latter term). The men DSK used to obtain women – low-level political allies, businessmen anticipating some sort of a return on the favor – were almost certainly given specific instructions. Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, his “madam,” searched out schoolgirls in lower-class neighborhoods, or working at exclusive establishments in humble positions (the case of Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who was working at Mar-a-Lago when Maxwell spotted her). Once a girl had been recruited, she was asked to “recommend” friends.
While class played a decisive role in the selection of victims, it appears to have been more subtle – or blatant, depending on one’s point of view – in both cases. The French have a long and troubled history of colonialism, and their immigrant class from the former colonies remains even now a permanent underclass.** Strauss-Kahn spent his early years in Francophone Africa (Morocco) and would have adopted the French attitude towards women from North Africa. Epstein, a Palm Beach transplant, would have known where to recruit just the type of girl he and his clients sought: white, often from broken homes, perhaps abused, needy but not absolutely indigent (he wouldn’t have recruited girls from Kissimmee, for example), girls whom his clients would have appreciated, girls who wouldn’t have looked out of place in photographs taken at one or another of Epstein’s residences (cf., for example, photos of Prince Andrew and one of the girls Epstein trafficked to London, Virginia Roberts Guiffre; another of Epstein’s clients was apparently the billionaire hedge fund manager Glenn Dubin, who in 1994 married Eva Andersson, Epstein’s own girlfriend for 11 years).
Law Enforcement: The documentary includes commentary by a number of the men involved in the Sofitel Hotel “incident,” including Paul Browne, NYPD Public Information Deputy Commissioner, Michael Osgood, then Deputy Chief Commissioner in charge of the NYPD Special Victims Unit, as well as the hotel’s Head of Security, John Sheehan. All three – in addition to Diallo’s own attorneys, Douglas Wigdor and Kenneth P. Thompson (who in 2104 became the Brooklyn DA; he passed away in 2016) – believed Diallo’s description of what happened in Room 2806, and none showed any second thoughts about her credibility (the men all spoke for purposes of the documentary, so the footage is new).
The problems in these cases do not seem to be with those who undertake the preliminary investigation; rather, the problems start at the top of the gravy chain of law enforcement and filter down to prosecution (or non-prosecution, as often happens), sentencing (light to non-existent), and various plea agreements. In Epstein’s case, the order to go easy on him apparently came down from the “top,” wherever that was. The federal prosecutor of Miami-Dade County at the time, Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump; he was forced to resign when Epstein was arrested in July 2019), arranged for a federal non-prosecution agreement. Acosta maintained he was given no choice about making the deal. And it was structured as a closed agreement, meaning that neither Epstein’s victims nor the judge in his case even knew its contents – which suggests what, exactly?
Something comparable occurred with the Strauss-Kahn case, overseen by Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan DA. After the decision not to prosecute DSK, Vance gave a rare press conference at which he responded to questions. His answers were pure garden-variety non-answers: “not enough evidence”, and “well, we know something happened in that room, but we’ll never know exactly what because there were no witnesses.”
It’s easy to say “go after trafficking” or “prosecute sexual assault crimes” or “go after offenders no matter how rich, powerful, and well-connected they are.” The problem is, how do you make that happen?
- You could change the laws to protect victims at trial, for one thing – make it illegal to try to discredit victims on the basis of their personal lives before the specific incident for which the perpetrator is being tried, the standard and nearly-infallible technique employed by the defense in rape and sexual assault cases (It even has a name: “Blame the victim”). But this is a hard sell; it would inevitably have both ramifications for how the perpetrator’s background is presented as well as how other major crimes cases are prosecuted.
- You could abolish cash bail, like Illinois has just done. If a similar law had been on the books in New York ten years ago, the judge who released DSK on $1 million bail plus a $5 million bond would have had less leeway about releasing him to house arrest. Unfortunately, this probably wouldn’t have made a difference in this particular instance, given that the Manhattan prosecutors and Vance appear to have been unwilling to prosecute at all.
- You could go after trafficking and procurement (“pimping”) more vigorously – not that this isn’t being done, but police departments’ special victims units are often understaffed and underfunded. A lot of lip service is paid to the need to prosecute perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, but police departments and prosecutors know these cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute and even more difficult to win convictions on – they hate them, in short. And victims know this, too: less than a quarter of sexual assaults are ever reported; fewer than 1% of cases lead to a conviction, and sexual assault perpetrators who are actually tried are far less likely than all other major crimes perpetrators to go to prison. And we must remember that most cases don’t involve men as wealthy, powerful, or well-connected as Strauss-Kahn and Epstein. [Note: For a very interesting initiative involving technology and international trafficking, see TraffikAnalysisHub.]
- You could try to change social mores to make sexual violence and exploitation absolutely and unconditionally unacceptable, no matter who the perpetrator is. The #MeToo movement (founded 2006), which gained momentum with the cases of Bill Cosby (2018) and Harvey Weinstein (2018), is directly engaged in this effort. Perpetrators of sexual assault have been revealed in the entertainment industry, premier-level sports (cf. particularly U.S. elite gymnastics), the broadcast and print media, and politics. This movement is taking hold abroad as well – Greece became embroiled in its first international-level #MeToo case with the November 2020 revelations by Olympic sailor Sofia Bekatorou about being raped at age 22 (in 1998) by a high official in the Hellenic Sailing Federation, Aristeides Adamopoulos (who is a well-connected political player in Athenian circles). Recent revelations have rapidly spread to the Greek theater world, including the recent arrest on rape charges of the Director of the National Theatre Dimitris Lignadis, whose preference ran to underage boys, some of whom appear to have been refugee boys especially “recruited” for him.
Since 2018, there have been notable prosecutions in the U.S. like those of Weinstein (several of whose victims were represented by Douglas Wigdor, one of Nafissatou Diallo’s lawyers), Cosby, and Larry Nassar (a former Michigan State gymnastics coach associated with Nassar, John Geddert, recently committed suicide after being charged with trafficking and sexual assault).
But Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s victims have not been vindicated, and neither have Jeffrey Epstein’s (despite the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell in July 2020). We’ll never know whether Epstein would have been tried and sentenced to the full extent of the law. Both he and DSK were “punished” in a sense – DSK after the Carlton case picked up steam and it became impossible for the French power elite to deny that he was, to put it bluntly, a sexual predator, while Epstein became a social pariah after his conviction in Miami in 2008.
But was this the best we could do? It would appear that there’s some point at which money, power, connections and influence overwhelm Justice herself. She may wear a blindfold in popular lore, but she’s not blind to money and power.
If we want to change that, we need to change nearly everything about how 21st-century society functions.
**Update: While re-editing this post, we discovered a recent interview podcast featuring the French journalist Rokhaya Diallo, published by The Intercept on 26 February (interviewer: Vanessa A. Bee). Diallo identifies the cognitive dissonance at the heart of French secularism (since 1905), referred to in French as laïcité. France declares itself “universalist” as opposed to “multicultural,” but of course the default identity is always “white, Christian and most likely, Catholic.” The whole interview is worth reading (or listening to), because it addresses the complexity of France’s colonialist past (particularly in the Maghreb, French North Africa), the ghettoization of Muslims in the banlieus, and how laïcité prevents the French elite from engaging in the sort of collective self-reflection required for them to confront – and repent of – their brutal history as colonialists. Note: the journalist, Rokhaya Diallo (who also is a regular contributor to the Washington Post; for a recent contribution, see here), identifies as French, Muslim, and Black – I looked up her surname, and sure enough, it is unique to French Guinea and the Fula; thus her ancestors immigrated to France from the same county as Nafissatou Diallo.