DSK attys press immunity claim at NY suit hearing

March 28, 2012 - 7:48 PM
Strauss-Kahn Lawsuit

This combo made from file photos shows former IMF leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn on June 6, 2011, left, and Nafissatou Diallo on July 28, 2011, in New York. While Strauss-Kahn faces fresh charges in his native France amid a prostitution ring probe, a judge in New York may decide whether to allow a civil case against him filed by Diallo, the hotel maid who said he sexually assaulted her. The first hearing is likely to deal with complex laws that shield diplomats from prosecution and lawsuits in their host countries. (AP Photos)

NEW YORK (AP) — As a deepening sex scandal surrounds Dominique Strauss-Kahn, his lawyers tried Wednesday to end a lawsuit over the hotel-room encounter that spurred international scrutiny of his behavior toward women.

At a hearing that centered on a complicated corner of international law, they tried to persuade a judge that the former International Monetary Fund chief has diplomatic immunity from a hotel maid's lawsuit claiming he sexually assaulted her. Her accusations prompted criminal charges that ultimately were dropped, but they touched off a growing slate of allegations about his conduct.

Strauss-Kahn's lawyers aim to persuade a judge to dismiss the civil case, too. That "may seem like an unfair result to some, but it's the result the law compels," Strauss-Kahn attorney lawyer Amit P. Mehta said.

But housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo's lawyers said Strauss-Kahn was stretching the rules of immunity to shield himself.

"Dominique Strauss-Kahn thinks he's above the law," one of Diallo's lawyers, Kenneth P. Thompson, said outside court. He called the immunity claim "completely baseless."

Bronx state Supreme Court Justice Douglas McKeon said he would rule "expeditiously" but didn't specify a date.

Neither Strauss-Kahn, 62, nor Diallo, 33, was at the hearing, the first in the civil case. It came as Strauss-Kahn faced fresh charges in his native France amid a prostitution investigation.

Strauss-Kahn, once a potential French presidential candidate, was charged last year with attempted rape and other crimes after his May 14 encounter with Diallo. He has called the encounter a "moral failing" but insists it wasn't violent.

The criminal case was dismissed after prosecutors lost faith in Diallo's credibility. She sued Strauss-Kahn.

His lawyers call the suit a money grab.

"We have lots of arguments, including the fact that it's clear that Ms. Diallo would like to have more money than she does today," attorney William W. Taylor III said after court.

Wednesday's arguments, however, dealt only with the complex laws that protect diplomats from prosecution and lawsuits in their host countries.

Strauss-Kahn's lawyers argued he's immune under a 1947 United Nations agreement that afforded the privilege to heads of "specialized agencies," including the International Monetary Fund. Although the United States didn't sign that agreement, Strauss-Kahn's attorneys say it has gained so much acceptance elsewhere that it has attained the status of what's known as "customary international law."

Strauss-Kahn was carrying a travel document that said he was entitled to those immunities, his lawyers said.

McKeon questioned both sides. He noted to Strauss-Kahn's lawyers that their client — who resigned his IMF post days after his arrest — didn't assert immunity in the criminal case.

Mehta said that was because Strauss-Kahn was trying then to clear his name, so "it wasn't in his interest to raise a defense that might seem purely procedural — it was in his interest to fight those charges."

Although Strauss-Kahn no longer had the IMF job when he was sued in August, his lawyers argue he still had immunity because another international agreement gives departing diplomats a "reasonable" amount of time to leave host countries before their immunity expires. At the time, Strauss-Kahn was under a criminal court order to stay in the U.S., Mehta noted.

Diallo's attorneys said Strauss-Kahn's argument is overreaching. Shortly after Strauss-Kahn's arrest, an IMF spokesman said he didn't have immunity because he was on personal business during his encounter with Diallo, lawyer Douglas H. Wigdor said. Strauss-Kahn was visiting his daughter in New York.

Legal observers say Strauss-Kahn is making an unusual claim on several fronts, among them asserting that the 1947 agreement should hold sway in the U.S. and that he had immunity as long as he was in New York.

"It's a novel and creative argument," said William H. "Widge" Devaney, a former New Jersey federal prosecutor who now specializes in international cases at Venable LLP in New York.

After Strauss-Kahn's encounter with Diallo, French writer Tristane Banon came forward to say Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her during a 2003 interview, but Paris prosecutors said the case was too old to try.

On Monday, he was handed preliminary charges in France alleging he was involved in a hotel prostitution ring including prominent city figures and police in Lille. Under French law, preliminary charges mean authorities have reason to believe a crime was committed but allow more time for investigation.

His French lawyer said the married Strauss-Kahn engaged in "libertine" acts but did nothing legally wrong and is being unfairly targeted for his extramarital sex life.

The Associated Press generally doesn't name people who report being sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Diallo and Banon have done.