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Lessons From Manhattan

Omkar Goswami


On the evening of 14 May 2011, officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey entered the first class cabin of an Air France flight that was about to depart for Paris and whisked off Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF and challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy as the next President of France. He was handed over to the New York City cops, who handcuffed and took him to a Manhattan office of the Special Victims Squad at Harlem. Four hours later he was questioned about allegedly raping and assaulting a 32-year old Guinean immigrant housekeeper that afternoon in his suite at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan. Then jailed. Bailed. Bonded. And house arrested.

The US press had a blast. Here was this powerful figure — the field marshal of institutional global capital, ambitious contender to the Elysee Palace and husband of a super-rich French television personality — who had apparently barrelled out of his bathroom half naked to open the door to a black Guinean housemaid, ripped open her clothes to assault and rape her. A rutting bull elephant who used his power to force his way upon an unfortunate female. Then buttoning up, he left the hotel and went to the airport to allegedly escape the country after committing his crime. And would have gotten away, had it not been for the intrepid NYC cops who, on hearing the tale, intercepted this powerful perpetrator minutes before take-off. Here was a paragon of power being forced to take a perp walk. Here, then, was a ‘for the people’ United States that stood up to protect the poor and punish the powerful. What a story!

In the US, DSK was a goner. Within hours of his arrest, stories surfaced about his prodigious sexual appetite: of his affair with Piroska Nagy at the IMF; of Tristane Banon, author and the daughter of a French socialist claiming that she was mauled by DSK in 2003; of his going after other women and being called The Great Seducer; and of how rich and powerful males can do what they want, especially if they were French.

Suddenly, the tables turned. Seven weeks after DSK was first handcuffed, the maid has proven to be a pathological liar to the embarrassment of the prosecution and Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney. She lied about her history; about what she did immediately after the alleged assault; about her relationship with a drug dealer; about big cash deposits in various bank accounts; and much else. Nailing DSK depended upon the housekeeper’s credibility in court. That seems totally destroyed. Which is why the prosecutors will drop the sexual assault charges against DSK either at the next court appearance or earlier.

What then is the good and the bad of US law enforcement? The good is this: more often than not, when the prosecution realises that the evidence is poor and the case is unsustainable, it drops the proceedings. In India, such a case will carry on and on — at the expense of the government and the defendant. This is not only in criminal cases, but also in civil. Tax cases lost by the government are routinely taken up to higher and higher adjudicating authorities lest the taxman be investigated for not prosecuting enough. Rare is it in the annals of Indian law enforcement for the prosecutor to say, “We don’t have a strong enough case. Let’s drop it.”

The worst is the political nature of the public prosecutor’s or District Attorney’s office. For big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and others, being a DA is a major step to becoming a mayor, governor or senator. Prosecutors and DAs want to politically demonstrate their capability of battling crime — and the more ‘press-worthy’ the better. Rudy Giuliani went after Ivan Boesky and the Mafia, popularised the ‘perp-walk’ and then became the mayor of NYC. Eliot Spitzer went after the Gambino Family, became attorney general for New York and the the governor before being forced to resign for patronising high priced call girls. Earlier, Thomas E. Dewey convicted Lucky Luciano and the Irish Tammany Hall bosses, became the governor of New York before losing the presidential elections to Roosevelt and then Truman.

DAs, therefore, are political persona and always on the lookout for big fish. In their search for prosecutorial glory, they occasionally fail. DSK was certainly a big fish. Unfortunately, Cy Vance Jr. — the son of the US secretary of state under Jimmy Carter — tripped up. Thankfully, despite his obviously terrible embarrassment, Vance has made amends. The case cannot be sustained, and so it will be dropped.

So, we may see other DSK-type goof ups in the US. But these correct themselves. Which is better that what we can say in many other countries.


Published: Business World, July 2011


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