Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain denied allegations that he sexually harassed two women while running the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, portraying himself as the victim of a smear campaign.
“I have never sexually harassed anyone,” Cain said yesterday, describing the accusations as a “witch hunt.”
“There’s nothing else there to dig up,” he added.
In a series of interviews originally scheduled to discuss his economic plans, Cain attempted to stem any damage from the allegations now confronting the candidate, who has risen from an asterisk in the polls to a leader of his party’s pack.
Politico reported on Oct. 30 that at least two female employees complained to colleagues and restaurant association officials after Cain acted in a sexually suggestive way. The women, unnamed in the report, received separation packages in the five-figure range, according to the website.
Cain, in an interview with Bloomberg News before a National Press Club luncheon, said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated allegations he sexually harassed an employee and found “no basis” to pursue the case.
He said he had recused himself from an inquiry conducted by the restaurant association, leaving it to the general counsel and human resources officer, and didn’t know whether financial settlements were made with the women.
“It couldn’t have been very much money, or I would have had to know about it,” Cain told Bloomberg yesterday.
Several hours later, Cain said the association paid one of the women a “termination settlement,” though he couldn’t remember whether it was two or three months’ salary.
“I do remember my general counsel saying we didn’t pay all of the money they demanded,” he said in an interview with Fox News’ Greta van Susteren last night.
Cain said he remembered one of the women who brought the allegations, though he couldn’t recall her name because she hadn’t worked for the association for very long. “I do remember the formal allegations she made in terms of sexual harassment,” he told Van Susteren.
When asked on PBS Newshour whether he had exhibited any inappropriate behavior, Cain said no. “But as you would imagine, it’s in the eye of the person that thinks that maybe I crossed the line,” he added.
The former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive faces new scrutiny as recent polls show him picking up support in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Cain is in a statistical tie with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the lead among Republicans in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register survey of likely caucus-goers in the state hosting the premier nominating contest in January. The poll showed Cain supported by 23 percent, Romney 22 percent.
For all his gains in the polls, Cain trails his rivals in fundraising and has scant organization in Iowa -- traditionally a prerequisite for a strong caucus showing. He made his first visit to the state in more than two months a week ago.
Cain, 65, also has sought to recover from a series of stumbles in recent weeks. A campaign website ad picturing his manager puffing on a cigarette and closing with a close-up of Cain smiling prompted a spate of jokes by late-night television comedians. And Cain has had to clarify several controversial statements, including his views on abortion, foreign policy and building an electrified fence along the Mexico border.
Role of Race
This time, some prominent Republican commentators rallied to his side, questioning whether the report of sexual harassment had racial undertones and drawing comparisons to accusations leveled at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his 1991 confirmation hearings.
“It’s outrageous the way liberals treat a black conservative,” author Ann Coulter said yesterday in an interview on Fox News. “This is another high-tech lynching.”
At the press club, Cain said race isn’t playing a role in his campaign. “This many white people can’t pretend that they like me,” Cain said.
Cain closed his appearance at the club in his signature style, singing a Christian gospel song for the audience.
On the way to the press club, Cain described himself as an “unconventional” candidate with “a sense of humor.”
“Some people have a problem with that,” Cain said. “Herman be Herman, and Herman is gonna stay Herman.”
Cain as Lobbyist
Cain spent two years as volunteer chairman of the National Restaurant Association, and then left his company in 1996 to lead the Washington-based trade group fulltime.
In that role, he lobbied against a ban on indoor smoking, increases in the minimum wage, stricter workplace safety standards and lower blood alcohol limits for drunken driving. He also worked in favor of welfare overhaul and bigger tax deductions for business meals.
The restaurant association declined to comment on the allegations in a statement on its website, citing a “longstanding policy” of not publically discussing personnel issues relating to current or former employees.
Officials at the EEOC also refused to comment on any probe. Christine Nazer, an agency spokeswoman, said no lawsuits were filed against Cain’s company, Godfather’s Pizza, or the National Restaurant Association. The commission files lawsuits only against employers, not against individuals, she said.
Cain and his campaign initially denied the allegations. In a statement on Oct. 30, campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon said: “Since Washington establishment critics haven’t had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain’s ideas to fix a bad economy and create jobs, they are trying to attack him in any way they can.”
Pressed by a reporter at an event yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute, where he was discussing his “9-9-9” tax plan, Cain declined to address the harassment charges.
He later addressed the issue at the press club, where he said he had been falsely accused of sexual harassment at the association and had never in his career harassed anyone.
After that appearance, he told WHO-AM in Des Moines, a widely heard station in Iowa: “The Cain train is staying on track, and we are making sure that we don’t allow these distractions from former employees and opponents to really get us off message.”