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BOOK REVIEW: ‘DSK’

- - Friday, June 15, 2012

DSK: THE SCANDAL THAT BROUGHT DOWN DOMINIQUE STRAUSS-KAHN
By John Solomon
Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 288 pages

As a young reporter wandering through the state legislatures of the American South in the early 1960s, I was soon aware of the lively sexual commerce that went on between men with political power and the women who provided such accommodations.

Arriving in Washington, I found much the same trade going on. Whether it was a congressman besotted by a secretary or a president who importuned an innocent intern, one common trait over the years has been that nearly everyone in town knew about it pretty quickly. I can think only of Rep. Wilbur Mills' booze-fueled dalliance with a stripper that truly caught insiders by surprise.

But the scandal that has engulfed Dominique Strauss-Kahn since May 2011 was a true shocker of trans-Atlantic proportions. And it grows increasingly creepy as the story continues.

Investigative journalist John Solomon has provided the best explanation yet for what is going on in this tightly written and altogether credible account of what happens when an ordinary sex scandal involving a prominent man turns into a dark story where scary questions still lurk.

It is fair to disclose that Mr. Solomon is a former executive editor of The Washington Times, but a year ago, when the saga began, he was making the transition from the Center for Public Integrity for investigative reporting and becoming a consulting editor for Tina Brown's startup website merger with a revived Newsweek magazine.

Unlike most political sex scandals in which disclosure usually produces knowing nods from insiders, the Strauss-Kahn case was initially hard to believe. There were just too many questions. Ms. Brown was skeptical of the story at first; so was Mr. Solomon.

First of all, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was not just some hayseed congressman caught with his zipper down. The International Monetary Fund that the 62-year-old Frenchman headed is not just another alphabet United Nations do-good agency. It is the credit manager for the world economy providing billions of dollars in financial aid and policy remedies at a time of acute global crisis.

Moreover, DSK (as he is known) was poised to return to France last year, certain to be his Socialist party's candidate for the presidency, which, had things been different, it now appears likely he would have won. He was a man at the top of his game, married to a wealthy American celebrity television journalist.

So the first news of his arrest by New York City detectives on May 14 was as incomprehensible as if Ben S. Bernanke or Paul Volcker had been handcuffed instead. It is clear from Mr. Solomon's reporting that New York police officials were just as baffled and so, for a long time, they did nothing. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was stashed in a police station and no attempt was made to question him. During this time, DSK apparently showed little sign that he fully understood just how much trouble he was in as the predictable media frenzy erupted about him during the days of his arraignment and temporary jailing at Rikers Island.

The official accusations that finally were leveled at DSK also raised questions. A 32-year-old housekeeper at the luxury French-owned Sofitel hotel named Nafissatou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who spoke broken English, told police she had been sexually assaulted by a "man with white hair" who occupied a luxury suite. Her story to hotel security and police remained consistent and convincing.

She charged that "she had been grabbed from behind by a naked, erect man as she entered Strauss-Kahn's suite to clean it shortly after noon that day. Diallo alleged the man forced the suite's door shut, grabbed her between the legs, and tried to rape her." Failing that, he forced her to perform oral sex before she was allowed to escape. Forensic evidence confirmed that DSK was the man involved.

But then DSK's friends among the media elite struck back. Surely this was some political dirty trick generated by his French rivals. The ubiquitous Arianna Huffington appointed DSK's wife, Anne Sinclair, editor of her Paris edition of the Huffington Post as a sign of solidarity. Conspiracy writer Edward J. Epstein published and then retracted much of his claims that DSK had been set up. The New Republic's editor mused that both DSK and his wife might have been targeted because of their support for Israel. Even the normally prudish New York Times joined the frenzy with unsourced, and later repudiated, attacks on Ms. Diallo's truthfulness.

Inexorably, the tide turned against the Guinean housekeeper as, first, DSK's friends and the office of District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. began to privately tell tales that Ms. Diallo may be trying to blackmail the Frenchman after having consented, as he claimed, to pleasure him.

What was really going on, Mr. Solomon convincingly asserts, is that Mr. Vance and his staff early on decided that they could not win a prosecution against someone as august as DSK with a fragile victim witness. Ms. Diallo may have been fragile on the witness stand, but Mr. Solomon is convincing that the supporting evidence demanded that she be given her day in court. But in August, the case was dropped.

The subsequent charges that have linked DSK to a series of abusive sexual encounters with other women as well as a French police probe of a prostitution ring that reached through a network of luxury hotels in France and Washington serve to underscore the cowardice of the New York prosecutors.

Even though Mr. Solomon's story is still unfolding in our daily newspapers, he has managed to tell it with all the suspense of the best whodunit. Except in this case, we know from the start who did it.

• James Srodes, a former Washington bureau chief for Forbes and Financial World magazines, is the author of "On Dupont Circle," which will be published by Counterpoint in August.