NEW YORK — A prominent Egyptian businessman admitted Friday to kissing and groping a hotel housekeeper who didn't welcome his advances, pleading guilty as the woman sued him for $5 million.
Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor sexual abuse charge, acknowledging he kissed the woman on the lips and neck and touched her breasts after she brought tissues to his room at the posh Pierre hotel. The 74-year-old chairman of state-run salt production firm El-Mex Salines Co. already has completed five days of community service in a soup kitchen, and his case will be closed without jail time or probation if he stays out of trouble for a year.
After softly answering "yes" in English to questions from a judge and prosecutor, Omar declined to comment as he left a Manhattan courthouse. Arrested while in New York to pick up a salt-industry award for El-Mex Salines, he spent about four days behind bars before being released on bail earlier this month.
His lawyer, Lori Cohen, called the case the result of a "big miscommunication" between the 44-year-old maid and Omar. While he acknowledged in court that he knew he didn't have the woman's consent for his advances, Cohen said he thought the housekeeper was receptive.
"I believe he thought something was happening that wasn't," she said. "I think his lack of a great understanding of English, and her desire to file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, led to these accusations."
The woman's lawyer bristled at the suggestion that she embellished the encounter to try to reap money from the former bank chairman.
"That's just not true," said the attorney, John P. Grill. "She didn't know who he was."
Omar initially faced a felony sexual abuse charge that carried up to seven years in prison. After interviewing numerous witnesses and reviewing surveillance video and forensic evidence, prosecutors concluded the incident "did not rise to the level of forcible compulsion," which would have to be proven for the felony charge, Manhattan assistant district attorney Nicole Blumberg said.
Whatever his plea deal, the woman's lawyer said, "it doesn't change what happened."
The woman's federal assault and false-imprisonment lawsuit says Omar also rubbed his groin against her legs and groped her buttocks. It was filed Friday so Omar could officially be served with a copy before he left the country, Grill said.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had said the case could be complicated to prosecute. Although the maid told a superior immediately that she had been attacked, the supervisor waited until the next morning to alert the hotel's security director, who then told police. The hotel suspended the supervisor and promised to buy "panic buttons" for maids to alert managers if they are attacked.
A spokeswoman for the hotel's owner, Mumbai-based Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, didn't immediately return a telephone call Friday.
Omar's lawyer said he might well have chosen to go to trial but was eager to get home to his wife, who has recently had surgery.
"This was the most expeditious way for him to return home," she said.
Besides chairing the salt company, Omar has served as chairman of Egypt's Bank of Alexandria, the Egyptian American Bank and the Federation of Egyptian Banks, according to a biography on his company's website. He has led El-Mex Salines since 2009.
Omar's arrest came little more than two weeks after then-International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested on charges of attempting to rape a maid at a different hotel, charges Strauss-Kahn denies. Together, the cases drew attention to the potential dangers of hotel maids' jobs.
The New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council plans to call for panic buttons as part of its contract negotiations with 150 hotels next year, and a state legislator has proposed to require the devices statewide.
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