In the School of Scandal textbook, the first rule of holes is to stop digging. When you've made a mistake, don't get yourself in any deeper.
The Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., apparently is now learning that lesson. Or maybe he's still ignoring it at his own peril. It's hard to tell what he is thinking.
The kindest explanation for how he and his team screwed up the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case is that they made the best decisions they could with the information they had. Defenders of Vance, and there are a few, say the circumstances gave him little choice, and they applaud his recent admissions that the hotel maid has a habit of lying as proof of his professionalism and integrity. They argue that what's clear in hindsight was muddy in real time.
Sorry, that's an excuse, not an explanation. For lawyers to say the legal system worked in this case is like a doctor who says the operation was a success when the patient died.
The case could be a mere billing dispute over sex that ran amok because prosecutors didn't take time to get the facts. Defending that decision makes them sound like, well, unscrupulous defense lawyers.
The DA's job is to make the right decision the first time, not to make the first decision quickly and then beg for understanding when the facts go south. Perfection isn't required, but Vance will dig himself in even deeper if he argues this mess is defensible.
The biggest mistake was the rushed decision to indict Strauss-Kahn immediately because prosecutors wanted to keep him in jail. Otherwise, he would have been released and they feared he would flee to France, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
But that decision meant that, under state law, they had only five days to indict him. That meant putting the maid before the grand jury -- before they had a chance to fully check out her and her story.
It backfired, and it's not clear only in hindsight. Some people in Vance's office reportedly argued against the rush to indict because they believed a full investigation was necessary to confirm the maid's version. They were right to be cautious -- the investigation ripped the case apart.
There was another option. Prosecutors could have held off on the indictment and accepted Strauss-Kahn's immediate release while arguing that his passport should be seized until the facts of a serious allegation were clear. Indeed, that's what eventually happened, but it came after an indictment that now looks like a serious miscarriage of justice.
Vance, a Democrat elected in 2009 to succeed the legendary Robert Morgenthau, needs to move fast to publicly explain how he got himself into this hole. But first, he needs to drop the shovel.
It's hard to see any way to do that without dropping the charges against Strauss-Kahn. The maid's been unmasked as a serial liar, and couldn't testify in a parking-ticket case.
With prosecution sources telling reporters they're now not sure a crime took place, no jury would ever convict him of rape or sexual assault. Because Strauss-Kahn would be crazy to plead guilty even to a misdemeanor, Vance has two choices: dismissal or pursuing a misdemeanor trial to save face.
Forget a trial. That would be a farce on top of a disaster.
But dismissing the charges against Strauss-Kahn only marks the start of Vance's duty to clear the air about this sordid matter.
He also needs to conduct a credible and timely postmortem about his office's decisions, statements and actions -- including his personal role. He then must release that report and answer questions in a public forum.
Then we'll know whether he's stopped digging.