Facing allegations of personal misconduct during his tenure running the National Restaurant Association, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain confronted pressure within his party to lift confidentiality restrictions on women who accused him of sexual harassment when he led the Washington trade organization in the 1990s.
“What are the facts?,” Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour asked on MSNBC. “If there’s some controversy with negative connotations, you want to get all the facts out, all the cards on the table face up as quickly as you can.”
The call for transparency from Cain was echoed by Karl Rove, chief political strategist for former President George W. Bush, who said freeing the women from the agreement will be the “only way to get past this.”
“It’s going to look unfair if he doesn’t take proactive measures to encourage the restaurant association to allow the women in question to come forward,” Rove said in an interview on the Fox News radio show “Kilmeade and Friends.”
Cain and his campaign have struggled to handle questions about the allegations two months before the first nominating contest in Iowa. A Quinnipiac University poll today shows Cain favored among 30 percent of Republican voters nationally, with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney second with 23 percent.
After two days of offering conflicting accounts of the complaints and financial settlements made with two women at the restaurant association, Cain stopped commenting publicly.
Though scheduled to hold a press conference, he left a speech at a health-care policy conference in Alexandra, Virginia, this morning without taking any questions.
“I’m here to visit with these doctors and that’s what I’m going to talk about,” said Cain. “Don’t even bother asking me all of these other questions that you all are curious about. Don’t even bother.”
As hotel security guards pushed photographers out of his path, Cain moved quickly through a crowd of reporters shouting, “Excuse me. Excuse me.”
Cain campaign manager Mark Block refused to say whether the candidate and his aides would ask the association to let the women out of the confidentiality agreements, saying they would address the matter “when it’s appropriate.”
An attorney for one of the accusers is asking the association to free his client from a confidentiality agreement, so she can respond to Cain’s claim that her charges were “totally baseless.”
Joel Bennett, the Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, told Bloomberg News that he plans to meet with his client tonight. “We will decide whether to contact the National Restaurant Association directly at that time,” he said in an e-mail yesterday.
Bennett contacted the association this morning and was directed to contact the group’s outside counsel, said Sue Hensley, senior vice president of public affairs communications for the group.
Cain, who first said at the National Press Club on Oct. 31 that he was unaware of any financial settlement of sexual harassment claims against him, yesterday told CNN that the restaurant association paid a woman “somewhere in the vicinity of three to six months’ pay” after she complained about him.
The National Restaurant Association paid another female staffer a year’s salary -- $35,000 -- in severance following a complaint against Cain, according to the New York Times, citing three unnamed people familiar with the matter.
‘Haven’t Done That’
Cain has said he doesn’t know the name of the second woman cited in a Politico report about the harassment allegations -- and Bennett said he represents only one of the women.
Asked about an account that Cain had invited a woman to his hotel room, Cain said on Fox News yesterday: “I am sure I haven’t done that, absolutely sure.”
The issue of a legal settlement was one of several details in an evolving account of Cain’s conduct as head of the National Restaurant Association from 1996-1999.
Cain first told an audience at the press Club in Washington that he was unaware of any financial settlement.
“As far as a settlement, I am unaware of any sort of settlement,” he said, adding: “I hope it wasn’t for much, because I didn’t do anything.”
Dismissing the newly reported allegations as a “witch hunt,” Cain said, “There’s nothing else there to dig up.”
A number of Republican commentators agree. “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.”
Yesterday, Cain said his supporters have greeted the accusations with above-average fund-raising. Cain, who has reported raising $5.3 million for his campaign, collected more than $400,000 on Oct. 31, the day he first faced questions, according to Block. He said in a statement that the day’s donations “doubled his normal daily average.”
The varying details of the episodes from Cain’s past have emerged in the midst of his increasingly successful bid for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination.
A Des Moines Register survey of likely caucus-goers in Iowa, the state hosting the first presidential nominating contest in January, shows Cain claiming the support of 23 percent, Romney 22 percent.
Romney, Cain’s closest rival, has backing among the Republican establishment including endorsements from at least 32 members of Congress.
Cain planned to use this trip to Washington to build support within the party. Last night, Cain ate with a group of Republican senators at Bobby Van’s Grill, a steakhouse in downtown Washington.
“Anybody who looks at Herman Cain is going to say, ‘This is a person of quality,’” said Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who’s backing Romney. “He’s a very good businessman, and he’s run a really good campaign.”
Today, Cain delivered a speech about health care to Republican House members and later mingled with them at the Capitol Hill Club, a popular spot for political fundraisers.