Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, first saying he was unaware of any financial settlement of sexual harassment claims against him, later allowed that the restaurant association he ran during the 1990s paid a woman “maybe three months’ salary” after she complained about his behavior toward her.
Today, Cain called it an “agreement” with the woman as opposed to a ‘settlement,’’ and said “it was somewhere in the vicinity of three to six months’ pay.’”
Along with his description of an encounter that may have made the woman uncomfortable, this was one of several details in an evolving account of his conduct as head of the National Restaurant Association during the 1990s as the presidential candidate faced a series of interviews in Washington.
Cain, saying he was falsely accused of sexual harassment while running the association, first told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington yesterday that he was unaware of any financial settlement of the allegations.
Then he said during an interview on Fox News last night that the association’s lawyer had informed him that a woman who worked for him and accused him of harassment was “demanding a huge financial settlement.” He said the attorney told him the complaint was baseless yet “we ended up settling for what would have been a termination settlement.”
Cain told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that the settlement was “maybe three months’ salary or something like that.”
‘Agreement,’ Not Settlement
Today, in an interview with CNN, Cain said: “I consider what happened an agreement.” In negotiations, he said, “that sum of money got less and less and less because her attorney figured out she didn’t have a valid claim. As it got smaller and smaller, it turned out from my perspective, more of a separation agreement than some sort of legal settlement.”
Cain said he wasn’t changing his story, but if he had to do it over again, “I would take the last interview of the day and make it the first interview of the day.”
The evolving accounts of episodes from Cain’s past have emerged in the midst of his increasingly successful bid for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination. In a recent poll among Republicans in Iowa, the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive holds a statistical tie with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the lead.
Cain’s handling of the matter could hinder a candidacy that already has encountered stumbling blocks with issues in the race, according to Republican strategist Mark Corallo.
“I look at the sex scandals I’ve worked on, and on a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 1,” Corallo said in an interview today. “But if he doesn’t start handling it right, it goes to like a 4 or a 5.”
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, the senior Republican in the state, downplayed the importance of the controversy for Cain in an interview today. “I don’t see that it’s going to have a big impact,” he said. “Iowans are focused on jobs.”
Cain, who repeatedly said yesterday that he “never sexually harassed anyone,” also has told interviewers that his behavior at the association, which he ran from late 1996 to mid-1999, may have been misinterpreted by women there. Cain told Bloomberg News that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had investigated the claim of one woman.
Politico reported on Oct. 30 that at least two female employees of the restaurant association complained to 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.
On Fox, Cain said the group’s general counsel came to him at the association and told him that a woman had complained of sexual harassment. Cain said he recalled her standing in the door of his office once “and I made a gesture saying, ‘Oh’ -- and I was standing close to her. And I made a gesture. ‘You’re the same height as my wife,’ and brought my hand -- didn’t touch her -- up to my chin and said, ‘You’re the same height of my wife because my wife comes up to my chin.’”
In an interview with Judy Woodruff on “PBS NewsHour” last night, Cain said he had turned the complaint of one woman over to the general counsel and said he “never even knew” that a second claim had been made against him.
‘The Little Gesture’
He recalled telling the woman who complained of harassment that she was the same height as his wife, and told Woodruff: “This lady’s 5 feet tall and she came up to my chin. So obviously she thought that that was too close for comfort. It showed up in the actual allegation. But at the the time when I did that, you know, it was in my office, the door was wide open, and my secretary was sitting right there, as we were standing there and I made the little gesture.”
Asked 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.”
Today, on CNN, Cain said he had found the woman’s complaint “ridiculous.” He remembered saying, “If she can make that stick and call it sexual harassment, fine.”
He attributed his evolving explanations yesterday and today to the passage of time. “Remember, this was 12 years ago,” Cain said. “I just started to remember more,” he told CNN. “In 12 years, a lot of stuff can go through your head.”
Appearing at a National Press Club luncheon yesterday, Cain said, “I have never sexually harassed anyone.” He said that he had been falsely accused during his tenure at the restaurant association and that “it was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis.”
“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.”
Cain faces this new scrutiny as recent polls show him picking up support in the race for the Republican nomination.
A Des Moines Register survey of likely caucus-goers in Iowa, the state hosting the premier presidential nominating contest in January, shows Cain claiming the support of 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. His visit to the state a week ago was his first in more than two months.
Series of Stumbles
Cain, 65, also has sought to recover from a series of stumbles in recent weeks. A campaign website ad picturing his campaign 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.
Some prominent Republican commentators have rallied to his side on the new allegations, 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 National 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.
He closed his appearance at the press club in his signature style, singing a gospel song for the audience.
’Herman Be Herman’
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 spent two years as volunteer chairman of the National Restaurant Association, and then left Godfather’s in 1996 to lead the Washington-based trade group full-time.
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 publicly 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 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.”
After his press club appearance in Washington, Cain 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.”
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