There are many headlines that strike fear in the hearts of presidential campaigns — and this one from Politico is probably right near the worst of them. Last night, they ran a story that the National Restaurant Association had to settle two sexual-harassment claims against Herman Cain when he chaired the trade group in the 1990s:
During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to POLITICO.
The women complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain that made them angry and uncomfortable, the sources said, and they signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them financial payouts to leave the association. The agreements also included language that bars the women from talking about their departures.
Cain got challenged to respond to this earlier in the day, which led to an uncomfortable moment:
Cain said he has “had thousands of people working for me” at different businesses over the years and could not comment “until I see some facts or some concrete evidence.” His campaign staff was given the name of one woman who complained last week, and it was repeated to Cain on Sunday. He responded, “I am not going to comment on that.”
He was then asked, “Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?”
He breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was repeated three times, he responded by asking the reporter, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?”
By late evening, the Cain campaign had a more polished response in denying that Cain had ever engaged in sexual harassment, without denying the existence of the settlements:
Fearing the message of Herman Cain who is shaking up the political landscape in Washington, Inside the Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain.
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.
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.engag
Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before – a prominent Conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics.
Mr. Cain — and all Americans, deserve better.
I’m not sure that Politico’s story about the settlements are “thinly sourced”; they appear to have made contact with the women involved, and Cain’s team pointedly did not deny that the settlements occurred. Politico also claimed to have seen the actual settlement documents and have a half-dozen sources for the story. Otherwise, this is a best-defense-is-a-good-offense response, blaming the media for reporting the story.
If the settlements exist, and if they pertain to sexual harassment, then it’s certainly fair game for the media. This would differ from the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill allegations, as Hill never reported Thomas contemporaneous to the supposed harassment (and continued working for him after they supposedly occurred). The two settlements would indicate that the women involved undertook action contemporaneous to the claims, which is more substantial than Hill’s behavior. However, it’s not clear from the story whether the settlements themselves are settled legal complaints, or merely small golden parachutes that don’t make any reference to the reason for the departure of the two women.
Even if the settlements reference sexual-harassment complaints, it’s important to remember that settlements in and of themselves don’t necessarily mean guilt or innocence. Anyone who has worked with high-ranking executives — especially those who have high public profiles — knows that they make pretty tasty targets for legal claims, whether warranted or not. For most organizations, it’s easier and cheaper to settle harassment claims than to fight them. The two women got five-figure settlements, which don’t seem particularly pricy, but that could also be deceptive — the women might not have had the resources to pursue the claims further than a smaller settlement, either. Cain doesn’t appear to have been rushed out of his position at the NRA, and he has had a very long run of success as an executive with a number of companies, and so far there hasn’t been any other claims of impropriety. That speaks in his favor, as long as that remains the case — and the Politico story indicates that may be the case:
Ron Magruder, Denise Marie Fugo and Joseph Fassler, the chair, vice chair and immediate past chairman of the National Restaurant Association board of directors at the time of Cain’s departure, said they hadn’t heard about any complaints regarding Cain making unwanted advances.
“I have never heard that. It would be news to me,” said Fugo, who runs a Cleveland, Ohio, catering company, adding such behavior would be totally out of character for the Cain she knew. “He’s very gracious.” …
Cain was “extremely professional” and “fair” to female staffers at the restaurant association, recalled Lee Ellen Hayes, who said she “worked fairly closely with” Cain in the late 1990s, when she was an executive at the National Restaurant Association Education Fund, a Chicago-based offshoot of the group.
Cain’s treatment of women was “the same as his treatment of men. Herman treated everyone great,” said Mary Ann Cricchio, who was elected to the board of the restaurant group in 1998. She said Cain left such a good impression on the organization that when he spoke at a group event in January of this year, as he was considering a presidential bid, “he had unanimous support in the room.”
Cain has certainly made his private-sector executive experience part of his resumé for President, including his leadership at the NRA. If — and that’s a big if — Cain engaged in inappropriate conduct as an executive to the extent that it cost his employer cast to settle the issues, then that would speak to his judgment. While no one should leap to the conclusion that Cain’s committed that kind of conduct, the existence of those settlements would require at least some explanation from Cain.
Update: We might need a little more explanation from Politico, too. Here’s Jonathan Martin on MSNBC, refusing to get specific about what exactly Cain said and did, out of sensitivity to the women involved, courtesy of Newsbusters:
WILLIE GEIST: Hey Jonathan, what are the allegations specifically as you understand them? There’s obviously a wide range in sexual harassment. What did he do?
JONATHAN MARTIN: We-, we-, well we have to be careful about that obviously, because we’re sensitive to —
GEIST: Of course —
MARTIN: — the sourcing involved here. And also, what also happened to these women as well–we want to be sensitive to that, too. It includes both verbal and physical gestures. These women felt uncomfortable, they were unhappy about their treatment, and they complained to both colleagues and senior officials. In one case it involved, I think, inviting a woman up to a hotel room of Cain’s on the road. Um, but, we-, we-, we’re just not going to get into the details of exactly what happened with these women beside what’s in the story.
Frankly, that’s not going to cut it. If the women have decided to start telling people about their claims, then they should identify themselves and tell the whole story. If it’s others who are talking about these claims and the women aren’t the sources for Politico, then that brings up a good question as to whether Politico has the details right in the first place. Either way, if Politico wants to run a piece accusing a presidential candidate of sexual harassment in his past, then its readers deserve all of the details so that they can make up their minds about whether the accusers and the accusations are credible.
Update II: Jazz Shaw has more thoughts, especially on the differences between this and the Anita Hill story.