By Justin Sink and Josh Lederman - 11/01/11 12:44 AM EDT
GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain on Monday rejected allegations of sexual harassment, saying he had been “falsely accused” and was the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Cain acknowledged there were charges of harassment when he served as president of the National Restaurant Association from 1996 to 1999, but said they were baseless.
Cain initially said he was unaware of any financial settlements reached between two women and the Washington trade group, and that any arrangement would have been completed by other officials at the restaurant association.
“If the restaurant association did a settlement, I wasn’t even aware of it,” Cain told Fox during a morning interview, “and I hope it wasn’t for much. If there was a settlement, it was handled by some of the other officers at the restaurant association.”
But in a second interview Monday with Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, first reported by The Washington Examiner, Cain said he was aware of a “termination settlement” with one woman. Cain said the woman and her attorney initially demanded a “huge financial settlement” but that the trade group eventually settled for a smaller figure.
“Maybe three months’ salary. I don’t remember. It might have been two months’,” Cain told Van Susteren. “I do remember my general counsel saying we didn’t pay all of the money they demanded.”
The charges against Cain came in a story in Politico published Sunday night that Cain suggested could have been a plant by a rival campaign. The story said two women had accused Cain of sexually inappropriate behavior, and had left the trade group with financial settlements and agreements not to talk about the arrangements.
Cain told The Hill on Monday that the controversy swirling around him was comparable to what happened to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by a former law clerk, Anita Hill, during his confirmation hearings.
“There seems to be some similarities. ... Probably so,” said Cain, who earlier this year predicted that like Thomas, he would be subjected to a “high-tech lynching” by liberals opposed to his campaign.
“The only question would be, how long are people going to drag this baseless, false accusation out? I can’t determine that,” Cain said Monday.
On Fox, Cain said he was aware of one complaint from a woman at the restaurant association that involved a gesture he made while saying, “You are the same height as my wife.”
Cain told Van Susteren he then brought his hand up to his chin and said, “ ‘My wife comes up to my chin.’
“And that was put in there as something that made her uncomfortable,” Cain said of the complaint.
Cain said he was unaware of the second woman’s complaint, though he confirmed to Van Susteren that reporters with Politico had given him her name.
“I am totally unaware as to any formal charges coming from this other person,” Cain told Van Susteren. “I have no knowledge that she made a formal complaint.”
During an appearance at the National Press Club, Cain said he would not press the association to turn over records surrounding either the settlement or its internal investigation of any claims against him.
“No, there’s nothing to shoot down,” Cain said, citing the restaurant association’s policy of not discussing personnel matters with the press.
Cain has surged to the top of Republican polls on the strength of strong debate performances and his 9-9-9 plan, which would impose 9 percent sales, income and corporate taxes in place of the current tax structure.
A weekend poll by the Des Moines Register found Cain had the support of 23 percent of those voters likely to attend the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, compared to 22 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was a distant third with 12 percent.
The other Republican candidates stayed quiet about Cain’s problems on Monday, though Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry said their campaigns were not involved in feeding allegations about Cain to the media.
It was difficult to judge Monday how damaging the report on Cain was, or whether his response to the campaign crisis would be successful.
Cain told The Hill the charges will cost him “a few votes.”
“I don’t think it’s going to cost us a lot, because I believe people who have connected with me and my message — they have also looked at my record and they, you know, see me as a person of integrity and character,” Cain said.
Former President Clinton counsel Lanny Davis, however, said Cain is prolonging the story by not immediately offering everything he knows about the complaints.
“The way he is going about this absolutely maximizes and compounds the problem,” said Davis, who contends that the story would end in a matter of days if Cain releases documents he legally is permitted to release, owns up to any allegations that are truthful, apologizes if that is appropriate and then moves on.
“He can avoid the question and make believe it’s going away,” Davis said. “Or we can add two and two and get four, which is to say, it isn’t going to go away unless you 100 percent become transparent.”
“I find this almost unimaginable,” said Gloria Allred, at attorney who represents plaintiffs in high-profile sexual harassment cases.
She said an organization’s CEO would be kept apprised of allegations that could subject them to legal exposure and liability. “He generally would be signing off on the settlement, or even be a party to it.”
But Jeffrey Pasek, who represents both plaintiffs and defendants in labor disputes, said it is “plausible” Cain did not know of a settlement.
He said the settlement could have been handled by restaurant association’s insurance company or by inside counsel without Cain’s involvement.
“It is entirely plausible that he may not have known the resolution. Plausible is not the same as likely,” Pasek said.
The National Restaurant Association said it would not comment on personnel issues related to current or former employees.
Allred and Pasek said that in order to have a credible case, the harassment Cain is alleged to have committed would have had to meet the legal standard of “severe” or “pervasive.”
Gesturing to his chin while telling an employee that she was almost as tall as his wife would appear to meet neither legal criterion, they said.
Under normal conditions, an organization receiving word that an employee was alleging sexual harassment would launch an internal investigation, in addition to any legal proceedings, experts noted.
And the employer has an interest in making sure the subject of the investigation is kept aware of the complaint, so as to avoid violating any policies prohibiting retaliation against employees who lodge complaints in good faith, Pasek said.
On the other hand, the relatively small size of the settlements — reported to be in the five figures — indicate they could be nuisance claims that the company decided to deal with as efficiently as possible, he said.
Cameron Joseph contributed to this article.
This story was posted at 11:44 a.m. and updated at 8:44 p.m.