The Strauss-Kahn Backstory at the New York Times

By Pam Martens: August 8, 2011

On the evening of June 30, 2011, heading into the news vacuum of the long Fourth of July weekend (a void that would guarantee news saturation for any major breaking story), the New York Times published a lead article declaring that “Strauss-Kahn Prosecution Said to Be Near Collapse.” Based on two anonymous sources cited by The Times in this internationally significant sexual assault case against the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, media across the world picked up the details in the story and regurgitated it over the internet, print media, cable and TV.

But what is now actually collapsing is one of the main assertions in that New York Times article — that Strauss-Kahn’s defense team did not plant this story with its reporters. In the first brief paragraph of the article, The Times used the phrase “according to two well-placed law enforcement officials.” In the second brief paragraph it stated: “…prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself.” Those phrases in close proximity to one another left the distinct impression that the circumstances of the alleged assault itself were in doubt and the source was inside the District Attorney’s office that is prosecuting the case.

But when Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, Assistant District Attorney in charge of the case, went before Judge Michael Obus the very next morning in the criminal division of the New York State Supreme Court, two of the most damaging facts asserted in the New York Times article did not accompany her into the courtroom. Illuzzi-Orbon made no mention, verbally or in the document she filed with the court, of their key witness, Nafissatou Diallo, speaking with an incarcerated man or of $100,000 (or any other amount of funds) being deposited into her bank account.

And yet, here is what The Times asserted was high on the list of causes for the case to be collapsing: “According to the two officials, the woman had a phone conversation with an incarcerated man within a day of her encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn in which she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him…That man, the investigators learned, had been arrested on charges of possessing 400 pounds of marijuana. He is among a number of individuals who made multiple cash deposits, totaling around $100,000, into the woman’s bank account over the last two years. The deposits were made in Arizona, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania.”

The disclosure document filed by the DA’s office was dated June 30. A source inside the DA’s office would have known on the evening of June 30 when The Times filed its story that there would be no disclosure to the court the next morning relating to an incarcerated man or $100,000 in bank deposits from four states.

Illuzzi-Orbon told the court that she had provided “all known exculpatory information as well as salient, confirmed impeachment information that we have learned….” There are only two ways to reconcile this statement with the statements in The Times: either the assertions are potentially legitimate and not yet confirmed (in which case it was reckless for The Times to publish them) or these assertions are false and would clearly not have come from the DA’s office. What we do know is that the DA’s office provided to Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers on June 30 a list of credibility issues it had with Diallo (as it is required to do under Criminal Procedure Law): lying on her asylum application, claiming an extra child she did not have on her tax return, and changing details about where she went in the hotel after the attack. The New York Times story ran the same day that defense lawyers had that information, June 30.

In the case of the phone call from the incarcerated man, Diallo’s lawyer, Ken Thompson of Thompson Wigdor in Manhattan, has subsequently stated that a full and accurate translation of the phone call disproves The Times assertion that his client was focused on financially benefiting from the alleged assault by a rich man.

The statement in The Times suggesting that prosecutors no longer believed much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances of the alleged assault is contradicted by prosecutor Illuzzi-Orbon’s statement in court the day after this article ran: “The fact of a sexual encounter was and is corroborated by forensic evidence, and the very brief time period inside the hotel suite strongly suggested something other than a consensual act.” How much damage has been done to this case by The Times “thunderbolt” scoop (as The Times says it was described in France)? This is a chronology of how The Times anonymous sources of unconfirmed information morphed into media gospel:

Shortly after midnight on the evening The Times ran their story, the following text was viewed in the Washington Post: “Prosecutors have found that the woman received $100,000 in cash payments in her bank accounts in recent years from the drug dealer and others. They also found she maintained multiple bank accounts.”

At 7:50 a.m. the next morning, July 1, 2011, the Reuters wire service was alerting the world that the New York Times had learned that “prosecutors had discovered that the woman, a 32-year-old Guinean, had had a phone conversation with an incarcerated man within a day of her encounter with Strauss-Kahn in which she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him. The conversation was recorded. It added that the man, who had been arrested on charges of possessing 400 pounds (181.5 kg) of marijuana, was among a number of individuals who had made multiple cash deposits, totaling around $100,000, into the woman’s bank account over the last two years.”

This was quickly followed by a CBS television network report at 9:56 a.m. “The Times reports the native of Guinea lied on her asylum application and may have connections to drug dealing and money laundering. Sources told the newspaper that while Strauss-Kahn was paraded before the cameras, the woman, who lives in an apartment in the Bronx, met with a prisoner friend at Rikers Island, and was recorded telling him the possible benefits of pursuing charges. The Times reports of a recent deposit in her bank account, totaling $100,000.” [The incarcerated man is actually in Arizona not Rikers Island; The Times referred to a phone call, not a physical meeting.]

Showing clearly that the media believed The Times’ source was a reliable prosecutor inside the DA’s office, Forbes went with the following breathless headline at 11:44 a.m. on July 1, the same morning that the DA’s office was submitting its disclosures to the Court with no mention of the incarcerated man or the $100,000 in bank deposits: “DSK Case Hangs From A Thread: Accuser Connected To Drug Dealers And Money Launderers.” The opening paragraph read: “Prosecutors working for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. have found that the woman had a phone conversation a day after the alleged sex attack with an incarcerated man where she discussed the benefits of raising charges against Strauss-Kahn, or DSK as he is known in France…The man she spoke with had been arrested on charges of possessing 400 pounds of marijuana and was also one of many who made a series of cash deposits to the chambermaid’s account totaling approximately $100,000 over the last two years, The Times reported.”

The story continued to gather wings as the weekend wore on. By July 3, given an effective green light by The Times to trash Diallo unmercifully, the New York Post had called her a prostitute and embellished the unconfirmed $100,000 bank account as follows: “Also, The DA suspects that the $100,000 she deposited into her accounts over the last few years included proceeds from sex-for-money exploits, said another prosecution source.” (It should be noted that Diallo was earning a union wage of $45,000 a year for cleaning upwards of 14 rooms a day in a luxury hotel. With tips, over a two year period, close to $100,000 would be expected to be legitimately deposited into her bank accounts. Prosecutor Illuzzi-Orbon has stated to the press that there is not a “scintilla” of evidence to suggest Diallo is a prostitute.)

And then on August 1, just four days after Diallo’s lawyer was widely quoted in the press disputing The Times portrayal of the phone call with the incarcerated man (Amara Tarawally, according to Newsweek) along with his statement, unchallenged by the defense lawyers, that The Times’ characterization had been verified as wrong by an independent translator hired by the DA’s office, the paper of record did something truly remarkable. Instead of printing an explanation or apology within its pages, it emailed hundreds of thousands of its subscribers a jaunty behind-the-scenes adventure depicting its fabulousness in reporting on the Strauss-Kahn scoop.

Written by Metro Editor, Carolyn Ryan, the email included the following passages: speaking of investigative reporter William Rashbaum, “Willy is a wonderful reporter, a genius at cultivating cops and courts sources.” On another reporter that worked on the “thunderbolt” story, “the ever-relentless courts reporter John Eligon….” On its intrepid travelers: “Our West Africa bureau chief, Adam Nossiter, traveled from our foreign bureau in Senegal to her home, 10 hours over rutted roads from the capital city of Conakry….” On its checks and balances: “under the steady guidance of their editor, Dean Chang….” And on its laurels: “…Jim Dwyer, our Pulitzer Prize-winning Metro columnist, a remarkably plugged-in New York newspaperman….”

According to The Times’ email, it “broke the news online shortly after 9 p.m. At 9:13 p.m., a news alert went out to our email subscribers with a link to the story: ‘Strauss-Kahn Prosecution Said to Be Near Collapse.’ ” The email continues: “Within minutes, Twitter lit up with people commenting on and re-tweeting the story. Requests for interviews with our reporters, from NPR to the BBC, flowed in. Insomniacs in France noticed the news and it spread quickly there, with French media calling the Times report a ‘thunderbolt’ … Back in New York, our competitors were unable to match our reporting.”

There are many aspects of this email that feel icky, not the least of which is the self aggrandizement and The Times’ monitoring foreign reaction to this story. (The New York Times is still a newspaper, right? I mean it’s not the State Department that needs to monitor foreign reaction; is it? )

But reporting the story on its web site and in its print edition was not the end of The Thunderbolt Express. The bullet train moved on to early morning television in the personage of William (or Willy, as his editor prefers) Rashbaum, co-author of the scoop. Rashbaum appeared first on the Today Show, then on CNBC’s cable business channel. In both programs, there was heavy emphasis by the interviewer on the phone call to the incarcerated man, drug dealing, money laundering and the $100,000 in bank deposits. Again, these are charges which the prosecutor’s office did not disclose to the court, which it certainly would have done if these were serious, confirmed facts.

One thing quite notable stands out about Rashbaum’s on-air appearances the morning of July 1. When asked what the prosecutors would tell the court later that morning, he had no idea. If your source is really inside the DA’s office, wouldn’t you know what the prosecutors plan to tell the court? Wouldn’t you know that there is not going to be one word about drug deals and incarcerated men and money laundering and $100,000 bank deposits in the prosecutor’s disclosure statement to the court? But if your source was, instead, tied to the defense lawyers, wouldn’t they pack your front page article with every dirty smear they could muster?

The three day media bombardment of charges of prostitution and drug dealer involvement against a minority woman credibly alleging sexual assault with DNA evidence backing her up had all the markings of a sophisticated smear campaign, purposely orchestrated by public relations pros to take place over a three-day holiday news cycle for maximum saturation. The remarkable August 1 email to subscribers of the New York Times had the equally troubling earmarks of an effort to offer up fabulousness instead of hard answers as to how it was able to confirm facts in a criminal case that had not yet been confirmed by the District Attorney’s office that was prosecuting the case.

I’ll be asking the Public Editor at the New York Times later today to investigate this matter. In the meantime, hopefully, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office will heed the advice of Robert Reuland, a former prosecutor in the Kings County, New York District Attorney’s office:

“Their complainant has some skeletons in her closet; Cy Vance [Manhattan DA] is shocked, shocked to find an African immigrant knows some unsavory people and may have lied on her asylum papers. Therefore, she’s making the whole story up? I don’t follow the logic there…as a prosecutor in Brooklyn my complainants always had issues, many far worse than those of the complainant in the DSK prosecution. In Brooklyn, we just rolled with it. Juries understand no one’s perfect. Anyone can win a case when the complainant is Mother Teresa. But sometimes, and quite frequently in my experience, bad things happen to bad people, too. And that’s still a crime, folks!

“I’m not aware of any evidence in the Strauss-Kahn debacle to suggest that the complainant made up her story about the assault. If she did, then the DA must pull the plug. Otherwise, tough it out, Cy. And welcome to New York City.”

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