NEW YORK – Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges that he sexually assaulted a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel.
In his first court appearance since he was released on $6 million cash bail last month, Strauss-Kahn, joined by his wife and daughter, answered to charges of attempted rape, sex abuse, a criminal sex act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching. He faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
While prosecutors have said that the evidence against the economist is growing every day, defense lawyers said they have obtained information that will damage the maid’s credibility.
Monday’s arraignment was the latest development in a scandal that has sparked an international media frenzy, tossed the IMF into chaos and endangered the agency’s efforts to stabilize the European debt crisis.
The arrest of Strauss-Kahn -- who was removed from a Paris-bound plane by authorities on May 14 and is now confined to a Manhattan apartment after posting $1 million bail and a $5 million insurance bond -- has also thrown into stark relief the vastly different lives of the accused and the accuser — he, one of the world’s most powerful men; she, a hotel housekeeper.
The rich and the poor cross paths thousands of times a day in this city of eight million people. They share flickers of interaction in taxicabs and hotels, in restaurants and on street corners and subway cars, until the privileged go one way and those who serve them go another.
Rarely do such routine encounters end in a “Bonfire of the Vanities” collision of culture and class the way they did last month at the Sofitel hotel near Times Square. A 32-year-old maid accused the head of the International Monetary Fund — a man considered a leading contender to become France’s next president — of sexually assaulting her in a 28th-floor suite.
Strauss-Kahn and the woman he is accused of attacking share an immigrant story of sorts, as French-speaking foreigners who found themselves on American soil. But that’s where the similarities end.
He was born to a wealthy French family and became a respected economist, an elected official and a finance minister and then the leader of one of the most influential financial institutions on the planet.
She is from Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa and one of the world’s poorest countries, and she eventually sought asylum in the United States.
In Washington, Strauss-Kahn lived in an elegant brick mansion in Georgetown, purchased for $4 million by his wife, Anne Sinclair, an heiress and former television and radio personality. It is an overwhelmingly white, well-educated and wealthy neighborhood — nearly 15 percent of households in their Zip code made more than $200,000 a year, according to the 2000 Census.
The couple also own homes in Paris and Marrakesh, Morocco, and have long lived a life of first-class plane rides, luxury hotels and black-tie dinners.
The maid lived with her teenage daughter in a run-down brick building in the Bronx, several blocks north of Yankee Stadium, in a neighborhood of check-cashing joints, fast-food restaurants and corner laundromats. Metal bars cover windows, and police sometimes barge through tenement halls in search of drug dealers. On a recent morning, the D train roared by every few minutes on the overhead track a block away. A discarded condom lay on a sidewalk near the building.
The same Census numbers also paint a strikingly different picture of her neighborhood: largely Hispanic and black, many without a high school diploma. The average household income is $20,000.
Until his indictment on charges including commission of a criminal sexual act and attempted rape, Strauss-Kahn spent his days as a renowned thinker, meeting with heads of state and tackling some of the world’s most pressing financial problems, from the looming debt crisis in Europe to how to help poor nations climb the economic ladder. As head of the IMF, he earned more money than the president of the United States.
Strauss-Kahn globe-trotted so much, his attorney said during a recent court hearing, that his passport ran out of room for more stamps. When he was arrested, he was on his way to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before heading to Brussels to discuss international aid packages for Greece and Portugal.
The maid, whose name has been withheld because of the nature of the allegations, lived a life far more predictable, repetitive and anonymous. Day after day, she made the seven-mile trip from the Bronx south to the Sofitel in midtown to make the beds and clean the bathrooms of its well-heeled clients.
“With limited opportunity for education or experience in Guinea, she came here to make a better life for herself and her daughter,” her attorney, Jeffrey Shapiro, said recently on the “Today” show. He said the housekeeper had worked at the hotel for several years and “was delighted to have this job.”
On the evening of May 26, hours after a New York judge agreed to release Strauss-Kahn on bail while he awaited his next court hearing, two scenes played out in different parts of the city.
Inside the Sofitel on 44th Street, patrons sipped $18 martinis, munched on $23 hamburgers and mostly ignored the TV reporter offering another live report outside the front lobby. Some guests headed upstairs to rooms with marble baths and stocked minibars, while others hailed cabs and disappeared into the swirl of midtown Manhattan.
Miles away on 116th Street in Harlem, many of the people who clean those hotel rooms and drive those cabs were congregating outside the barbershops and bodegas of the city’s most concentrated West African enclave, where the housekeeper had spent time among fellow immigrants.
A halal butcher stood in his doorway. Nearby, men headed into a mosque for evening prayers. The modest cafes served oxtail soup and thiebou djien, a traditional African fish dish. And nearly every television was tuned to French news broadcasts, most of which were reporting on the Strauss-Kahn case.
Here, as in France, as in Washington, as in much of New York City, people chatted about the case, debating what really transpired, whose story they believed or didn’t, how it might end. But they also agreed that the case was being handled differently here in New York than it would have been in their home countries, where the word of the rich and powerful almost always trumps the word of the poor and the struggling.
“If it had happened in Africa, they’re not going to take him to jail,” said Baillo Barry, 49, who immigrated from Guinea and now owns the Fouta African Market on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Like others, she said the facts are still too hazy to assess guilt or innocence, but this much is certain: Unlike in the country where she and the maid came from, the justice system in American can act as a great equalizer.
“Here, it doesn’t matter who you are ... You could be rich, you could be poor,” she said. “It’s different here.”
Ariana Eunjung Cha contributed to this report.