Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal

Weinstein was almost nabbed in 2015

NEW YORK • For decades, film producer Harvey Weinstein succeeded in hiding from public view complaints of sexual misconduct against him. But on the evening of March 28, 2015, at a rendezvous at the TriBeCa Grand, his long-time pattern of cover-ups was coming to a dramatic end.

Meeting him at the hotel was Ambra Battilana, a 22-year-old model from Italy, who had reported to the police the night before that Weinstein had groped her during a business meeting. She was wearing a wire. As Battilana asked Weinstein why he had touched her breasts at his office, undercover police officers monitored the exchange, eager to capture his every word.

"Oh, please, I'm sorry, just come on in," he said as he tried to usher her into his hotel room, his tone alternating between threatening and cajoling, according to the recording. "I'm used to that. Come on. Please."

"You're used to that?" she replied. "Yes," he said, adding, "I won't do it again."

The investigation that unfolded over the next two weeks was perhaps the biggest threat faced by Weinstein, one of the most prominent figures in American entertainment. He immediately went on the attack.

As the police and prosecutors investigated the model's allegations, the movie mogul set in motion a team of top defence lawyers and publicists to undermine her credibility.

Private investigators went to work collecting records from two cases in Italy involving Battilana.

As a teenager, she made a sexual-harassment complaint against a 70-year-old man, but later declined to cooperate with prosecutors, law enforcement officials said.

In 2011, she testified for the prosecution at the trial of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. She described a sex party with teenage girls at his house in which she had refused to participate in lewd acts.

Influential public relations strategist, Ken Sunshine, known for his bare-knuckled tactics, put out statements on Weinstein's behalf. And the tabloids ran stories suggesting she was selling her story for US$100,000 and had tried to use the groping allegation to blackmail him.

In the end, the Manhattan district attorney, Mr Cyrus R. Vance Jr, announced he would not press charges. Once the criminal case was closed, Weinstein silenced Battilana with a substantial payment.

The case demonstrates how Weinstein, with ample funds and influence, was able to assemble a counterstrike against the sex-crime investigation using the weapons available to the powerful. It also highlights the challenges such cases pose, even for the vaunted Manhattan district attorney's office.

Little of what happened in the case emerged before this month, when The New York Times reported claims of rampant sexual harassment and unwanted touching by Weinstein, and The New Yorker reported sexual assault allegations - as well as the audio recording of the hotel encounter with Battilana.

On Sunday, the police said detectives were investigating several allegations made in recent days. The London police are also investigating allegations against Weinstein.

As more and more women come forward with accusations and public outrage has grown, those in the New York Police Department and the Manhattan district attorney's office have blamed each other for the failure to prosecute Weinstein in 2015.

Mr Vance, who is running unopposed for a third term, said the evidence was not strong enough to win a conviction. "If we had a case that we felt we could prosecute - that my experts felt we could prosecute - we would have," he said.

Prosecutors concluded Battilana would have been a problematic witness because she had given them shifting accounts of her previous sexual assault complaint in Italy, said three officials familiar with the investigation.

Mr Vance's assistants also feared they could not prove that Weinstein had touched Battilana for sexual reasons because the advance came as they were discussing her desire to be a lingerie model and whether her bosom appeared to be surgically enhanced.

While police officials acknowledged that prosecutors would be hard-pressed to win a conviction, they thought the tape recording of the exchange at the hotel was sufficient to arrest him on third-degree sexual abuse, a misdemeanour that carries a maximum of three months in jail.

"We brought them a very good case," said a senior police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an investigation that was closed without charges being filed. "He admitted, twice, doing it. That's probable cause to make an arrest."

Battilana, a finalist in the Miss Italy pageant, caught Weinstein's eye at a reception for a show he was producing at Radio City Music Hall. He told her she looked like actress Mila Kunis and invited her to bring her modelling portfolio to his office at the Tribeca Film Center.

Battilana recently told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper that she struggled to get work after the case was over and that the fashion world closed its doors on her.

"What happened to me really put my view of the world to the test," she said. With a flood of accusers coming forward, she said she hoped that it "will bring me justice".

In an interview with the BBC published on Sunday, director Woody Allen addressed the wave of allegations against Weinstein, calling it "tragic for the poor women", but also warning against a "witch-hunt atmosphere".

Those comments drew harsh criticism on social media and, on Sunday, Allen released a statement calling Weinstein "a sad, sick man".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Weinstein was almost nabbed in 2015'. Print Edition | Subscribe