By Kasie Hunt
ABOVE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain wipes his forehead before answering questions at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday, Oct., 31, 2011. Denying he sexually harassed anyone, Cain said last Monday he was falsely accused in the 1990s while he was head of the National Restaurant Association, and he branded revelation of the allegations a “witch hunt”.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON — The lawyer for one of two women who reportedly accused Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexual harassment in the 1990s said Tuesday he had asked their former employer to waive an agreement and allow her to talk openly about her allegations.
Joel P. Bennett, a Washington lawyer who specializes in employment cases, said in media interviews that his client wants the National Restaurant Association to waive confidentiality so she can respond to Cain’s claims that the complaints were “totally baseless and totally false.”
A spokeswoman for the restaurant association, Sue Hensley, said Tuesday night that the group had not been contacted by Bennett. Cain, a Georgia businessman best known as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, was head of the association at the time of the complaints.
Bennett told The Associated Press he would have more to say after he meets with his client Wednesday. In an interview Tuesday night on CNN, he said he stood behind his client. “I know her very well,” he said, “and I’m sure she would not make a false complaint.”
The New York Times reported Tuesday night that the National Restaurant Association gave a female employee a year’s salary in severance pay, $35,000, after she said an encounter with Cain made her uncomfortable working there. The newspaper cited three people with knowledge of the payment to the woman, who was not Bennett’s client.
One of Cain’s rivals, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, appeared to take a jab at Cain when she met Tuesday night with supporters at a Baptist church in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Though not mentioning Cain by name as she stood in the pulpit, Bachmann said: “This is the year when we can’t have any surprises with our candidate. We have to have a candidate that we can know, when we put them into office, we can trust them with their record of what they have done and who they are.”
Cain, meanwhile, spent Tuesday much as he did Monday, going from interview to interview to defend himself. There was time for politicking, too: He met Tuesday night with Republican senators at a restaurant near the Capitol as part of a meet-and-greet strategy with lawmakers whose support he is seeking.
Cain’s contradictory explanations — he also denies he has changed his story — have raised questions about details of the allegations and about his current ability to manage a crisis in the national spotlight. The accusations surfaced just as had risen in national polls in the GOP nomination fight two months before the leadoff Iowa caucuses.
He said last Tuesday night on Fox News that he believes there are some Democrats who want him defeated because he’s an unconventional candidate “achieving some unexpected, unconventional results,” and there could be some on the right “who do not want to see me because I am not the establishment candidate.”
Cain, who is black, said he believes race is also involved “but we don’t have any evidence to support it.” He added: “Relative to the left, I believe that race is a bigger driving factor. I don’t think it’s a driving factor on the right.”
In Sunday night’s original report, by Politico, at least two women who had complained about Cain were said to have agreed to settlements that included stipulations that they not repeat their allegations in public.
Cain’s evolving answers to questions in a host of media interviews this week led one rival campaign to suggest he’s not being upfront about the accusations.
“If you are the front-runner and you plan to be the nominee … be forthcoming so that you are vetted, and we don’t get into a situation where you’re our nominee and we find out things after the fact,” John Brabender, a strategist for Rick Santorum’s campaign, said at forum hosted by National Journal. “We’re still waiting for clarification from the Cain campaign.”
But Cain said that rather than the allegations hurting, his fundraising was actually surging — “the highest it has been since I’ve been in this campaign,” he told Fox News.
The campaign took in as much as $400,000 in a single day, said Mark Block, Cain’s chief of staff.
Will the controversy undermine Cain in Iowa and beyond? Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was willing to hear the candidate out.
“Iowans are pretty fair-minded people and just because somebody makes an accusation — anybody that is in a high-profile position is potential to have people make these kinds of accusations,” Branstad said. “I think Iowans will, you know, carefully look at the real situation and not jump to any conclusions.”
Over the past two days, Cain has admitted he knew of one agreement between the restaurant association and a woman who accused him of sexual harassment. He has said the woman initially asked for a large financial settlement but ultimately received two to three months’ pay as part of a separation agreement. Cain also acknowledged remembering one of the woman’s accusations against him, saying he stepped close to her to make a reference to her height, and told her she was the same height as his wife.
He has said he is not aware of agreements or settlements with any other women, though Politico — which first disclosed the allegations — reported that the trade group had given settlements to at least two female employees who accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior.
Beyond that, Cain has offered a series of sometimes-conflicting statements over what happened and didn’t happen, and what he knew about financial payouts.
By Tuesday, Cain was chalking up the confusion to semantics, saying he was aware of an “agreement” but not a “settlement.”
“It looked like I had changed my story,” Cain told CNN. “I didn’t change my story.”
He acknowledged he’d made the problem worse for himself over the course of the previous day.
Tuesday night he said, “I absolutely agree we could have been better prepared. Mea culpa on being better prepared.”
On Monday, Cain first said he had no knowledge of settlements with any women who had complained about inappropriate sexual behavior. He later admitted he knew of one agreement.
The damage control amounted to a real-time crisis management test for a candidate who is just introducing himself to the country and who has based his campaign on his decades-long background in business management that includes stints at Godfather’s Pizza, Pillsbury, Coca-Cola and the Department of the Navy.
At a time of 9.1 percent unemployment, Cain is pitching himself as a businessman who can solve problems.
He already was taking heat over the management of his campaign, insisting that his lack of staff in early voting states simply amounted to an unconventional approach, even as former employees griped about a candidate with no plan. Now, his approach to solving his own political predicament has raised questions about how he would perform as president handling the nation’s crisis.
“Where he has run into some trouble is, ‘does the story change?’ Because when the story changes, people equate that with guilt,” said Eric Dezenhall, who runs a top crisis communications firm. “The very act of a change in and of itself can suggest that there’s a problem.”
“Contrasts are big news, and one way to touch up someone claiming business competence is to dredge up something that says it’s not true, that the competence is a phantom,” Dezenhall said.
Cain has promised to surround himself with professional staff if elected president.
“Part of being a leader is surrounding yourself with good people and that is what I do,” he said during a recent campaign appearance in Alabama, explaining that he doesn’t believe a candidate needs to be an expert in every policy area to be a good president.
But, since the harassment allegations became public, Cain’s staff has contributed to the conflicting accounts — even offering flat denials that there was any factual basis to the story.
Separately, chief of staff Mark Block has a lawyer investigating whether a charity he founded, Prosperity USA, improperly gave goods and services to Cain’s presidential campaign earlier this year.
On the harassment allegations, Cain initially told the AP that he couldn’t remember any details of any accusations. Hours later, he acknowledged remembering the one woman’s complaint.
By Tuesday, he attributed the lapses in memory to being under so much pressure during a day of media appearances.
“After 12 hours over the day, many events, many interviews, I was able to gradually recall more and more details about what happened 12 years ago,” he said. “I wasn’t given the opportunity to think about it for a day before I was forced to start answering questions.”
Politico said it had started asking Cain’s campaign about the allegations on Oct. 20 — 10 days before the story was published late Sunday.
Cain said Monday that Politico had also provided his campaign with the name of a second woman who, Politico reported, also received a settlement after complaining of sexually inappropriate encounters with Cain.
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