WASHINGTON/PARIS (Reuters) - Faced with a legal and media onslaught, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is pulling together a crack team of investigators, former spies and media advisers to fight back against charges he sexually assaulted a hotel chambermaid.
The former IMF chief’s advisers will have their work cut out for them, and they may have to use different approaches to handling his legal problems in the United States while trying to bolster his reputation in his native France and beyond.
This may be why the range of damage-control specialists being assembled is so diverse. People consulted or hired so far include ex-CIA spies, experienced New York criminal investigators and some of the best-connected public relations specialists in the French-speaking world.
Strauss-Kahn, who is under house arrest in New York, has denied charges of a criminal sexual act, attempted rape, sexual abuse, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching. The case could take several months to come to court.
The Frenchman has just found a more permanent place to stay following four days in jail and several more in an apartment besieged by media hordes. A person close to Strauss-Kahn’s entourage, who asked to remain anonymous, said only now that he and his wife Anne Sinclair have finally settled in a two-story townhouse in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood are they and their lawyers able to start mapping out a defence strategy.
In Washington, the team is in the process of signing up TD International, a “strategic advisory” firm which offers both public relations and investigative services and is staffed and run by former CIA operations officers and U.S. diplomats.
In New York, according a person familiar with the arrangement, the team has hired a private investigations firm experienced in criminal cases. The firm, Guidepost Solutions, describes itself as a “full-service investigations and security consulting firm.”
In Paris, Strauss-Kahn’s team has sought counsel, at least informally, from some of his long-time personal advisers affiliated with Euro RSCG, one of France’s best-connected PR outfits. While the firm has denied it is involved, a source close to Strauss-Kahn’s entourage said at least some of the advisers who have worked with Strauss-Kahn in the past are quietly advising him again now.
Precisely what Strauss-Kahn’s defence team expects -- or hopes -- each of these firms to do is unclear.
The legal team is led by Benjamin Brafman, a prominent New York criminal lawyer known for his thorough preparation and aggression. He did not respond to requests for comment on the contents of this story. Beyond lawyers, the defence team either has, or is preparing, formal retainer agreements with two high-powered, low-profile firms which operate somewhere near the interface of public relations and corporate and criminal investigations.
One is the little-known Washington-based “strategic advisory” firm TD International, according to a source close to the firm.
The firm’s website identifies two of its partners as former CIA officers, and its founder and managing partner, William Green, as a former U.S. diplomat “who participated in the management of the Anglo-American and U.S.-Canadian intelligence relationships when posted to Washington.”
TD International’s website says it offers clients such services as “strategic consulting”, “commercial intelligence,” “due diligence” and “security services.”
Justice Department filings by TD International give a peek into some of its activities. One set of filings shows that beginning in late 2006, TD acted as a U.S. representative for Yulia Tymoshenko, who was a leader of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” and later served as prime minister.
Other Justice Department filings show that in 2007, TD International was hired by Strauss-Kahn to act as his “U.S.-based communications resource.” A contract between TD International and Strauss-Kahn, dated July 18, 2007, shows he hired the firm to “conduct a specific public relations campaign” and “work is to begin immediately and continue until ascendancy of client to head of IMF.”
The contract says Strauss-Kahn was to pay the firm 20,000 euros, then equivalent to about $27,600. According to the source close to the firm who is familiar with the contract, TD International helped advise Strauss-Kahn on U.S. and international political strategy related to the choice of a new IMF chief.
The 2007 contract was signed on TD International’s behalf by Ronald Slimp, who the firm’s website says was a former U.S. diplomat and trade negotiator.
The source who is familiar with TD International’s activities said that while the firm’s involvement with Strauss-Kahn was more related to politics and PR, the firm also conducts investigations, often related to the performance of due diligence on pending overseas business transactions.
The source said that TD International had been approached by Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers and that the firm was likely to agree to an engagement. Precisely what role TD International would play is unclear, but the source indicated that it could involve “strategic thinking” about helping him to rebuild his international reputation.
A spokesman for TD International told Reuters: “We don’t comment on client relationships and activities. However, our past work with Dominique Strauss-Kahn is accurately reflected in (Justice Department) filings.”
Requests for comment sent to Strauss-Kahn’s legal team were not answered.
The second firm set to play a role, according to the source close to Strauss-Kahn’s entourage, is Guidepost Solutions, a prominent New York private investigation firm widely reported to have been enlisted by defence lawyers.
Guidepost Solutions describes itself as a “global investigations and security company” which specializes both in physical security systems and “expert investigative and security consulting services and advice...”
The company’s chairman, Bart Schwartz, is a former chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan. Guidepost’s vice-chairman is Joseph Rosetti, a former senior officer of Kroll Associates, the global security consulting firm.
The company had no comment on the reports.
A person familiar with Guidepost’s repertoire of services said that one of the firm’s principal lines of business is to conduct “factual investigations.” In a case like this, the source said, defence lawyers would “need to know what the facts are” and Guidepost could help them figure that out. But the source downplayed any suggestion Guidepost would be involved in trying to dig up information on Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim.
In France, Strauss-Kahn has worked closely with four people who are current or former top executives at the Euro RSCG public relations firm’s Paris operation. Stephane Fouks, Anne Hommel, Gilles Finchelstein and Ramzi Khiroun started working closely with Strauss-Kahn following his resignation as French finance minister in November 1999. French media often refer to them as “the Four Musketeers.”
Lisa Gruber, a spokesperson for Euro RSCG’s North American operation, said in an e-mail that no one in the company’s North American operation “is at all involved.” She also said the North American office had no information that Fouks, who heads the firm’s operation in Paris, was involved in his defence.
In a voice mail message, Fouks, a former music producer who is chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide and a managing director of its parent, the French advertising/communications giant Havas, also denied Euro RSCG was playing any role.
“There is no contract because there is no activity. This is a matter where he (DSK) needs an American lawyer and not a French communications agent obviously,” he told Reuters.
Nevertheless, the source close to Strauss-Kahn’s entourage told Reuters that at least some of his associates affiliated with Euro RSCG had been consulted informally by Strauss-Kahn or his entourage since his New York arrest, and are likely to play a role.
After Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, Anne Hommel distributed a statement from his wife Sinclair expressing support for her husband. According to Journal du Dimanche, Hommel went to New York with Sinclair after DSK’s arrest.
Hommel was a Socialist Party parliamentary assistant and secretary to DSK for years. As a press attache for him on the staff of Euro-RSCG, she did a lot of day to day spadework promoting and protecting his image in the French media in recent years.
Perhaps the most colorful and controversial of the four is Ramzi Khiroun. While apparently not presently on the staff of Euro RSCG, French media reports say Khiroun once worked there and, up until very recently at least, still maintained a freelance consulting contract.
Khiroun is currently chief spokesman and director of external relations at Lagardere, one of France’s biggest companies, whose media holdings include Paris Match magazine and the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche.
Earlier this week Paris Match published a 10-page spread on the case, with pictures of a happy Strauss-Kahn with Sinclair, with his daughter, with his mother and other children. It compares Sinclair in her “broken dignity” to Marianne, the French national symbol. “After five days in hell, Anne Sinclair is finally going to join her husband. She is the other victim of the crime of rape of which Dominique Strauss-Kahn is accused.”
The fourth “musketeer” is Gilles Finchelstein, an intellectual who is president of the Jean Jaures Foundation, a think-tank close to the Socialist Party. On Euro RSCG’s website, he is described as “director of strategy and studies.”
Hommel and Khiroun did not respond to request for information on what contacts they might have had with Strauss-Kahn. The source close to Strauss-Kahn’s entourage said that while Euro RSCG might not enter a formal relationship with the team, as individuals, some of the four were being consulted behind the scenes.
Hiring a small army of lawyers, investigators, security guards and perhaps PR people won’t come cheap. Prosecutors estimated in open court that Strauss-Kahn could be paying out as much as $200,000 a month to the security firm that is providing round-the-clock guards. Fees for lawyers and investigators could cost millions more.
At the hearing which led to his release on bail, his lawyer said that although Strauss-Kahn has a net worth of “roughly $2 million,” his wife has “substantially greater assets.”
Strauss-Kahn’s team is already trying to dig into the background of the hotel maid who made the assault accusations, two sources close to the case said.
Defence lawyers said in a letter to prosecutors this week that they already have information which could “gravely undermine” the accuser’s credibility, but one source familiar with defence investigations said it was proving difficult to develop information about the woman.
Among issues which investigators are expected to examine is her U.S. immigration history, which is not a matter of public record. Police have said her immigration status is irrelevant.
Experts say it is standard practice to dig up information on the accuser in such cases. But Bradley Simon, who worked as a Federal prosecutor before going into private practice, warned that a harsh attack on the accuser could backfire on Strauss-Kahn’s defence.
“They more they dig up dirt on her, the more sympathy it might generate for her,” Simon said. “The more they dirty her up the more it’s going to repulse a jury.” (Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Basil Katz, Michelle Nichols; Editing by Michael Williams and Claudia Parsons)