By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York judge rejected former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's claim of diplomatic immunity on Tuesday, ruling a lawsuit filed by the hotel maid who accused him of sexual assault can move forward.
Bronx Supreme Court Justice Douglas McKeon's decision ensures accuser Nafissatou Diallo can continue to press claims for monetary damages and prevents Strauss-Kahn from putting the May 14 incident fully behind him, even as he attempts to relaunch his career by giving speeches on the world conference circuit.
Diallo, a maid at the Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan, accused Strauss-Kahn of forcing her to perform oral sex in his luxury suit. Strauss-Kahn has said the incident was consensual.
Prosecutors dropped the criminal case against Strauss-Kahn in August because they had concerns about Diallo's credibility as a witness.
McKeon called Strauss-Kahn's motion an unsuccessful "Hail Mary" attempt to secure immunity from prosecution. He ruled Strauss-Kahn's voluntary resignation from his IMF post days after his arrest on criminal charges put an end to any diplomatic immunity he might have enjoyed.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers said they were disappointed by the judge's decision.
"He is determined to fight the claims brought against him and we are confident that he will prevail," William Taylor and Amit Mehta said in a statement.
The scandal made headlines around the world nearly a year ago and scuttled Strauss-Kahn's expected bid for the French presidency.
Strauss-Kahn was pulled off an Air France flight hours after the encounter with Diallo and taken into custody. Photographs of a disheveled Strauss-Kahn shepherded into court appeared in media accounts around the globe.
But New York prosecutors eventually became distrustful of Diallo's story. They said she invented details about her past and altered her version of what happened immediately following the incident inside Strauss-Kahn's suite.
Diallo filed the civil lawsuit a few weeks before the criminal case was dismissed.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers had argued in court papers that he enjoyed immunity from both civil and criminal prosecution based on a 1947 U.N. treaty that grants immunity to the heads of specialized agencies. But Diallo's lawyers argued that the treaty did not apply to the United States, which is not a signatory.
In his decision, McKeon said Strauss-Kahn's failure to assert immunity at the time of his criminal indictment undermined his claim.
"If Mr. Strauss-Kahn was entitled to absolute immunity, as he contends, there was ample opportunity before now to assert it," McKeon wrote. "Mr. Strauss-Kahn cannot eschew immunity in an effort to clear his name only to embrace it now in an effort to deny Ms. Diallo the opportunity to clear hers."
One of Diallo's lawyers, Douglas Wigdor, said her team was "extremely pleased" by the ruling.
"We have said all along that Strauss Kahn's desperate plea for immunity was a tactic designed to delay these proceedings and we now look forward to holding him accountable for the brutal sexual assault that he committed," he said.
Strauss-Kahn's legal troubles have persisted since his return to France last summer. In March, French authorities announced he is under formal investigation in connection with a prostitution ring in the northern city of Lille.
His French lawyers have accused authorities of harassing Strauss-Kahn for his "libertine ways" and denied any criminal wrongdoing.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Bill Trott)