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Report: Cain accused of inappropriate behavior in 1990s

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:42 AM EDT, Tue November 1, 2011
  • Cain's campaign says the media is launching "unsubstantiated personal attacks"
  • Cain would not answer questions about the allegations
  • The report has drawn criticism from other conservatives
  • A POLITICO reporter says the story speaks for itself

(CNN) -- The campaign of presidential candidate Herman Cain has criticized a news report alleging that Cain displayed inappropriate behavior to two female employees in the 1990s, saying the news media has started "to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain."

At least two female employees of the National Restaurant Association complained of inappropriate behavior from Cain when he led the organization, POLITICO reported Sunday night.

Cain's campaign was quick to respond.

"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," said J.D. Gordon, Cain's campaign vice president.

"Dredging up thinly sourced allegations stemming from Mr. Cain's tenure as the Chief Executive Officer at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, political trade press are now casting aspersions on his character and spreading rumors that never stood up to the facts," Gordon said in a statement.

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The women, who were not named in the POLITICO story, left the organization after receiving "separation packages that were in the five-figure range," the newspaper reported.

POLITICO described the alleged harassment as including "conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature, taking place at hotels during conferences, at other officially sanctioned restaurant association events and at the association's offices. There were also descriptions of physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable and that they regarded as improper in a professional relationship."

Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, served as head of the NRA from 1996 until 1999. He has risen recently in national and statewide polls, becoming a top tier candidate in the GOP presidential race. He is scheduled to deliver two speeches in Washington on Monday, one at the American Enterprise Institute and the other at the National Press Club.

Jonathan Martin, senior political reporter for POLITICO, told CNN Monday one woman was asked to come to Cain's hotel room. She complained to an association board member and was one of the women who subsequently left the organization, Martin said.

Martin said POLITICO gave Cain's campaign 10 days to respond to the allegations. First, he was told the allegations had been "settled amicably by parties years ago," he said.

When pressed on specifics, a Cain spokesman told POLITICO the candidate "vaguely recalled" the incidents and referred him to the NRA's general counsel, Martin said. However, the organization's personnel policy prohibits it from commenting, Martin said, and the Cain campaign would not say more.

Martin said he confronted Cain after his appearance Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." A CNN camera captured Cain responding to the series of questions from POLITICO.

"I'm not going to comment about two people that you won't tell me who they are," Cain said. "OK. That's like negotiating."

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Asked several times whether he has ever been accused of harassment. Cain eventually responded, "Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?"

"He was given the chance to answer a very direct question," Martin said Monday morning. "... He did not say 'yes' or 'no' to that question."

POLITICO said it spoke to a roster of former NRA board members, current and past staffers and others familiar with the workings of the trade group during Cain's tenure. The newspaper reported it also saw documents that described the allegations.

The women complained that Cain's behavior "made them angry and uncomfortable, and they signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them financial payouts to leave the association," POLITICO said.

The newspaper said it confirmed the women's identities, but said it did not publish their names out of privacy concerns.

The report has drawn criticism from some conservatives.

"It's outrageous the way liberals treat a black conservative," columnist Ann Coulter said on Fox News. "This is another high-tech lynching." The phrase was first used by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose confirmation hearings focused on sexual harassment allegations against him.

Asked about Coulter's comments, Martin told CNN's "American Morning" on Monday that people should read the article in POLITICO.

"The story speaks for itself," he said.

John Avlon, a CNN political contributor and a senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, said Monday that while the comparison to Thomas might be an easy one to make, "these allegations need to be investigated on their own merit."

The idea that the story represents a plot by the "liberal press" doesn't have merit, Avlon said. He said it may "smack of opposition research" by another campaign.

But Cain needs to address the allegations, he said.

"You need to deal with the fact these issues are out there and get ahead of the matter and tell people the truth."