NEW YORK — Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s reputation with women earned him the nickname “the great seducer,” and not even an affair with a subordinate could knock the International Monetary Fund leader off a political path pointed in the direction of the French presidency. All that changed with charges that he sexually assaulted a maid in his hotel room, a case that generated shock and revulsion, especially in his home country.
Police said the maid picked Strauss-Kahn out of a lineup. Unless the charges are quickly dropped, they could destroy his chances in a presidential race that is just starting to heat up.
The IMF, which plays a key role in efforts to control the European debt crisis, named an acting leader and said it remains “fully functioning and operational” despite Saturday’s arrest.
Strauss-Kahn’s attorney, Benjamin Brafman, told The Associated Press that his client will plead not guilty. He and another lawyer went in and out of the Harlem police precinct where Strauss-Kahn was being held early Sunday afternoon, and declined to answer reporters’ questions until the arraignment, which was expected later Sunday.
“He denies all the charges against him,” Brafman said. “And that’s all I can really say right now.”
Brafman is one of the city’s most high-profile defense attorneys. His clients have included mobsters and such celebrities as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and ex-New York Giants star Plaxico Burress.
Strauss-Kahn, 62, was arrested nearly four hours after the alleged assault, plucked from first class on a Paris-bound Air France flight that was just about to leave the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The white-haired, well-dressed, thrice-married father of four was alone when he checked into the luxury Sofitel hotel, not far from Manhattan’s Times Square, on Friday afternoon, police said. It wasn’t clear why he was in New York. The IMF is based in Washington, and he had been due in Germany on Sunday to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The 32-year-old maid told authorities that when she entered his spacious, $3,000-a-night suite early Saturday afternoon, she thought it was unoccupied. Instead, Strauss-Kahn emerged from the bathroom naked, chased her down a hallway and pulled her into a bedroom, where he sexually assaulted her, New York Police Department spokesman Paul J. Browne said.
The woman told police she fought him off, but then he dragged her into the bathroom, where he forced her to perform oral sex on him and tried to remove her underwear. The woman was able to break free again, escaped the room and told hotel staff what had happened, authorities said.
Strauss-Kahn was gone by the time detectives arrived moments later. He left his cellphone behind. “It looked like he got out of there in a hurry,” Browne said.
The NYPD discovered he was at JFK and contacted officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport. Port Authority officers arrested him.
The maid was taken by police to a hospital and was treated for minor injuries. Stacy Royal, a spokeswoman for Sofitel, said the hotel’s staff was cooperating in the investigation and that the maid “has been a satisfactory employee of the hotel for the past three years.”
Strauss-Kahn was arrested on charges of a criminal sex act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. Authorities were looking for any forensic evidence and DNA.
His wife, Anne Sinclair, defended him in a statement to French news agency AFP.
“I do not believe for one second the accusations brought against my husband. I have no doubt his innocence will be established,” said Sinclair, a New York-born journalist who hosted a popular weekly news broadcast in France in the 1980s.
A member of France’s Socialist party, Strauss-Kahn was widely considered the strongest potential challenger next year to President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose political fortunes have been flagging.
“At the top of the polls,” Strauss-Kahn tweeted proudly in French last December, linking an article that showed him ahead in opinion polls when French voters were asked whom they would choose in a primary. At a soccer game in a Washington suburb last September, he, his wife and others were seen wearing T-shirts that read, “Yes we Kahn.”
Strauss-Kahn also pointed out that he trailed only Warren Buffett and Bill Gates on a list of 100 “global thinkers” compiled last November by Foreign Policy magazine. Strauss-Kahn was cited for his “steely vision at a moment of crisis” — for convincing Germany to help bail out Greece’s debt-laden government, and for helping to put the brakes on defaults in Hungary, Pakistan and Ukraine.
The arrest could throw the long-divided Socialists back into disarray about whom they could present as Sarkozy’s opponent. Even some of his adversaries were stunned.
“It’s totally hallucinating. If it is true, this would be a historic moment, but in the negative sense, for French political life,” said Dominique Paille, a political rival to Strauss-Kahn on the center right, on BFM television. Still, he urged, “I hope that everyone respects the presumption of innocence. I cannot manage to believe this affair.”
Candidates need to announce their intentions this summer to run in fall primary elections.
“If he’s cleared, he could return — but if he is let off only after four or five months, he won’t be able to run” because the campaign will be too far along, said Jerome Fourquet of the IFOP polling agency.
“I think his political career is over,” Philippe Martinat, who wrote a book called “DSK-Sarkozy: The Duel,” told The Associated Press. “Behind him he has other affairs … I don’t see very well how he can pick himself back up.”
Strauss-Kahn is known as DSK in France, but media there also have dubbed him “the great seducer.” His reputation as a charmer of women has not hurt his career in France, where politicians’ private lives traditionally come under less scrutiny than in the United States.
In 2008, Strauss-Kahn was briefly investigated over whether he had an improper relationship with a subordinate female employee. The IMF board found that the relationship was consensual, but called his actions “regrettable” and said they “reflected a serious error of judgment.”
Strauss-Kahn issued an apology, writing in an email to IMF staff that he showed poor judgment but didn’t abuse his position.
The sexual assault allegations come amid French media reports about Strauss-Kahn’s lifestyle, including luxury cars and suits, that some have dubbed a smear campaign. Some French raised suspicions about sexual assault case as well.
“Perhaps this affair will unravel very quickly, if we learn that there is in the end no serious charge and that what was said by this woman was not true, and we all wish for this,” former Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande said on Canal-Plus television. “To commit an act of such seriousness, this does not resemble the man I know.”
At La Rotonde, a cafe on Paris’ Left Bank, psychiatrist Sylvie Etienne said Strauss-Kahn’s alleged behavior is very sad because he had had a “great chance” of becoming president. Her daughter, high school literature teacher Stephanie Plou, said it was probably for the best.
“This had to come out one day. Better now than when he’s president,” she said.
A former economics professor, Strauss-Kahn served as French industry minister and finance minister in the 1990s, and is credited with preparing France for the adoption of the euro by taming its deficit.
He took over as head of the IMF in November 2007. The 187-nation lending agency provides help in the form of emergency loans for countries facing severe financial problems.
Sarkozy, who did not comment publicly Sunday, had championed Strauss-Kahn to run the IMF. Political strategists saw it as a way for Sarkozy to get a potential challenger far from the French limelight.
Caroline Atkinson, an IMF spokeswoman, issued a statement Sunday that said the agency would have no comment on the New York case. She referred all inquiries to Strauss-Kahn’s personal lawyer and said the “IMF remains fully functioning and operational.”
Another IMF spokesman, William Murray, said the fund’s executive board would be briefed on developments related to Strauss-Kahn on Sunday, and John Lipsky, the IMF’s first deputy managing director, would lead the organization in an acting capacity in Strauss-Kahn’s absence.
Strauss-Kahn was supposed to be meeting in Berlin on Sunday with Merkel about increasing aid to Greece, and then join EU finance ministers in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday. The IMF is responsible for one-third of Greece’s existing loan package, and his expected presence at these meetings underlined the gravity of the Greek crisis.
Angela Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Cristian Salazar and Verena Dobnik in New York, Martin Crutsinger in Washington and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.