Herman Cain should know that his presidential campaign is in trouble when one brewing scandal is stealing attention from another one.
Most headlines are focused on the sexual harassment allegations that came to light Sunday in a report on Politico.com. Mr. Cain, leading for now in national and many statewide polls for the Republican presidential nomination, was alleged to have sexually harassed two former employees when he ran the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. The group paid settlements to two women, Politico reported, citing multiple sources. Politico did not reveal the names of the women, in keeping with the terms off their settlements.
In public appearances Monday, Cain said he was “falsely accused,” and called the story a “witch hunt.” He also said he was unaware of any settlement, a point he reversed later in the day.
But perhaps just as damaging to Cain is a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, also published Sunday, which asserts that two of his top campaign aides ran a private nonprofit group that may have improperly helped get Cain’s campaign started.
One of the aides at the heart of this inquiry is Mark Block, a Wisconsinite now famous for a Cain campaign Web ad in which he smokes a cigarette. Mr. Block and the campaign’s deputy chief of staff, Linda Hansen, founded the Wisconsin-based group Prosperity USA, now at the center of questions over whether it improperly paid for some early Cain campaign expenses.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obtained internal financial documents showing that the Cain campaign owed Prosperity USA $37,372, mostly for travel expenses but also for the purchase of iPads. It wasn’t clear if the money had been reimbursed; such expenditures might be a violation of federal law, the paper said.
Block told the Washington Post in an e-mail Monday that the campaign has asked “outside counsel to investigate the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s suggestions and may comment, if appropriate, when that review is completed.”
In addition, Block was the subject of a Huffington Post piece published Friday that reported he was banned from running Wisconsin political campaigns for three years in the early 2000s after he was accused of illegally coordinating a state Supreme Court justice’s reelection campaign with a special-interest group that favored school vouchers.
Still, nothing grabs the public’s attention like a sex scandal. And Cain spent all day Monday trying to tamp down the explosive Politico article. Speaking at a National Press Club luncheon, Cain acknowledged that he had been accused of sexual harassment while working at the National Restaurant Association, but asserted he had been “falsely accused.”
“In all of my over 40 years of business experience … I have never sexually harassed anyone,” Cain said.
He continued: “When the charges were brought, as the leader of the [restaurant association], I recused myself and allowed my general counsel and my human resource officer to deal with the situation. And it was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis.”
Cain said he was not aware of any settlements having been paid. But if there were, he added, “I hope it wasn’t for much.”
Later in the day, a report on a Cain interview with Greta van Susteren of Fox News – to be aired at 10 p.m. Eastern time Monday – showed that Cain did in fact remember a settlement.
Speaking of one woman who received a settlement, Cain said this, according to Byron York of the Washington Examiner: “My general counsel said this started out where she and her lawyer were demanding a huge financial settlement…. I don’t remember a number…. But then he said because there was no basis for this, we ended up settling for what would have been a termination settlement.”
When Cain was asked how much money that was, he said, “Maybe three months’ salary. I don’t remember. It might have been two months. I do remember my general counsel saying we didn’t pay all of the money they demanded.”
Cain also offered one recollection of something he had done that was in the sexual harassment charge of one woman: “She was in my office one day, and I made a gesture saying – and I was standing close to her – and I made a gesture saying you are the same height as my wife. And I brought my hand up to my chin saying, ‘My wife comes up to my chin.’
“And that was put in there [the complaint] as something that made her uncomfortable,” Cain said, “something that was in the sexual harassment charge.”
Cain’s evolving story, over the course of the day, raises questions about his – and his campaign’s – communications skills. The Cain campaign had more than a week’s advance warning that Politico was working on the story, and thus Cain had plenty of time to get his story straight. But clearly it’s still a work in progress.