Video: Cain rejects harassment claims as a ‘witch hunt’

  1. Transcript of: Cain rejects harassment claims as a ‘witch hunt’

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now we turn to presidential politics and two GOP candidates who got a lot of attention they did not want today. First, Herman Cain , the current front-runner, forced to answer allegations of sexual harassment first reported by the website Politico. Tonight, NBC News has confirmed that two women accused Cain of inappropriate sexual conduct while he was CEO of the National Restaurant Association , and that at least one of them received a financial settle. As NBC 's Lisa Myers reports, Cain is now in full damage control mode and calling this a witch hunt.

    Mr. HERMAN CAIN: I told you this bull's-eye on my back has gotten bigger.

    LISA MYERS reporting: Today, Cain acknowledged there were allegations of sexual harassment , allegations he says were false.

    Mr. CAIN: In all of my over 40 years of business experience running businesses and corporations, I have never sexually harassed anyone. I was accused of sexual harassment . It was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis.

    MYERS: The emphatic denial came after 24 hours of evolving responses.

    Yesterday: I'm not going -- I'm not going -- I'm not going to comment on that.

    Mr. CAIN: This morning:

    MYERS: Did you ever engage in innuendo with any members of the Restaurant Association ?

    Unidentified Man #1: No.

    Mr. CAIN: Stand back, please.

    Unidentified Man #2: Any unwanted sexual advances?

    Man #1: Cain is married and has two grown children. Two sources involved with the restaurant group at the time Cain was CEO in the late '90s tell NBC that the two women alleged he made unwanted advances or sexually suggestive comments. NBC News is not disclosing the names of the women. These sources say at least one woman received a financial settlement before leaving the organization. Cain 's denials today were carefully worded, each time denying sexual harassment , often used as a specific legal term that has to do with creating a hostile work environment.

    MYERS: Never have I committed any sort of sexual harassment . Two anonymous sources claiming sexual harassment .

    Mr. CAIN: He also did not deny there'd been any settlements.

    MYERS: As far as a settlement, I am unaware of any sort of settlement. I hope it wasn't for much because I didn't do anything.

    Mr. CAIN: A few hours later Cain changed his story, telling Fox there was some sort of settlement but it was small. The National Restaurant Association isn't talking, calling it a personnel matter that allegedly took place 15 years ago. The group also declined to confirm or deny Cain 's claim that an investigation found no basis for the

    MYERS: Lisa 's in our DC newsroom tonight. Lisa , thanks.

    allegations. Brian:

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 10/31/2011 8:46:24 PM ET 2011-11-01T00:46:24

Denying he ever sexually harassed anyone, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain declared Monday he was falsely accused in the 1990s while he was head of the National Restaurant Association and the allegations are surfacing now as part of a "witch hunt."

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The former pizza company executive was responding to a Politico report that said the trade group gave financial settlements to at least two female employees who had accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior.

"I have never sexually harassed anyone, and yes, I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association," Cain said Monday morning in an interview on Fox News. "I say falsely because it turned out, after the investigation, to be baseless."

But throughout the day Monday, Cain offered conflicting responses as to whether he remembered the specifics of the allegations or the existence of settlements with the women. That raised new questions about the candidate who now is at or near the top in many polls on the GOP race.

At an appearance at the National Press Club Monday afternoon, Cain said he did not know if the trade association provided any settlements, and he declined to address specifics of the accusations or any resolution.

Video: Cain: 'I have never sexually harassed anyone'

"I am unaware of any sort of settlement. I hope it wasn't for much, because I didn't do anything," he said.

But in an interview later Monday with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, Cain said he did know about it. "Yes, there was some sort of settlement or termination," he said.

He told Van Susteren his accuser was given “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.”

During his appearance at the press club, he declared: "There's nothing else there to dig up. ... We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is really what it is."

In an interview with The Associated Press immediately afterward, Cain first said he had some memory of specific allegations — and then said he was not aware of any.

"Some of them," he responded initially.

When pressed, he said: "That was 12 years ago. So no, I don't remember."

Video: Campaign chief: Cain ‘never sexually harassed anybody’ (on this page)

Still later, in an interview with PBS NewsHour, he said he remembered that "once I referenced this lady's height and I was standing near her." He continued, "Because my wife is 5 feet tall and she comes up to my chin.  This lady's 5 feet tall and she came up to my chin.  So obviously she thought that that was too close for comfort."

Cain defended himself. "It was in my office, the door was wide open, and my secretary was sitting right there, and we were standing there and I made the little gesture," he said.

After taping the PBS interview, Cain told reporters a lapse of memory from the event 12 years ago is why there was a discrepancy as to whether there was a payment.

Cain started the day with a breakfast appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, and he said, "I do have a sense of humor and some people have a problem with that." In the interview with AP, Cain said that comment did not refer to the sexual harassment allegations.

"I was just referring to my natural sense of humor. So it was not related to that, OK?" he said.

He also had said in humorous fashion, "As a result of today's big news story, I really know what it feels like to be No. 1."

The trade association declined to comment on the allegations.

"The incidents in question relate to personnel matters that allegedly took place nearly fifteen years ago. Consistent with our longstanding policy, we don't comment on personnel issues relating to current or former employees," National Restaurant Association spokeswoman Sue Hensley said in a statement.

NBC News has independently confirmed that two women accused Cain of inappropriate sexual conduct while he was CEO of the association and that at least one of them received a financial settlement after making the allegations.

Cain accuser received cash settlement

Cain — a self-styled outsider relatively new to the national spotlight — is facing a new level of scrutiny after a burst of momentum in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

He's been at or near the top of national surveys and polls in early presidential nominating states, competitive with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, long considered the Republican to beat. Cain has been pointing to his long record in business to argue that he has the credentials to be president during a time of economic strife.

So far, Cain has seemed to weather a series of stumbles; the former radio talk show host had to clarify recent statements on abortion, the treatment of terrorism suspects and the placing of an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He's also shrugged off questions that have started to surface about his management style, including criticisms about a lackluster approach to his own presidential campaign. He lags his top competitors in organization and fundraising.

The new allegations could hurt Cain's efforts to reassure the Republican establishment that someone with so little political experience — and who hasn't been fully vetted on a national stage — is prepared to go up against President Barack Obama next fall.

But there were signs that conservatives were rallying behind him, attacking the report as inaccurate and perhaps racially motivated.

Slideshow: Herman Cain (on this page)

The head of the conservative Media Research Center, Brent Bozell, called the Politico story a "high-tech lynching of Herman Cain." That was a reference to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' response to a former worker's allegations during his confirmation hearing.

"In the eyes of the liberal media, Herman Cain is just another uppity black American who has had the audacity to leave the liberal plantation," Bozell wrote on the conservative website Newsbusters.org.

The allegations came to light Sunday night when Politico reported that at least two women who complained about sexually inappropriate behavior while working for Cain had signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them five-figure financial payouts to leave the association and barred them from discussing their departures. Neither woman was identified.

The report was based on anonymous sources and, in one case, what the publication said was a review of documentation that described the allegations and the resolution.

Politico said Cain refused to comment when asked specifically about one of the woman's claims. And when asked if he had ever been accused of harassment by a woman, the publication said Cain responded by asking the reporter, "Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?"

Despite the controversy, Cain pressed ahead with his full slate of campaign appearances in Washington on Monday.

At the speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he refused to answer questions about the allegations. Still, as he was leaving the stage, he stopped, turned to the crowd and talked about his sense of humor without providing any context. He said his staff tells him to be himself — or "Let Herman be Herman."

He added: "Herman is going to stay Herman."

An hour later, he was on Fox News.

"If more allegations come, I assure you, people will simply make them up," Cain said. Besides his job as CEO of Godfather's Pizza, he worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

"What you can expect from my campaign is for me to stay on message, for us to continue to do the things and execute our strategy in order to win the nomination," Cain said.

"Obviously, some people are going to be turned off by this cloud that someone wanted to put over my campaign," he said. "But a lot of people aren't going to be turned off. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

Photos: Herman Cain

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  1. Republican candidates for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, Johnny Isakson of Marietta, left, Herman Cain of Forest Park, right, and Mac Collins of Atlanta, reflected in the mirror on the wall, wait in the green room of WSB-TV studios before the start of a debate between the three in Atlanta, July 10, 2004. (John Amis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Republican senate candidate Herman Cain held a press conference to promote advance voting after casting his ballot with his wife Gloria in McDonough, Ga., on July 13. 2004. Cain married Gloria in 1968, the year after he graduated from Morehouse college with a degree in mathematics. The couple have two children and three grandchildren. (Rob Felt / Daily Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sarah Palin impersonator Patti Lyons, right, shares a laugh with Herman Cain in the lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel during the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. In a speech on the second day of the conference, Cain declared that "stupid people are ruining America." (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Herman Cain announces his run for the Republican candidate for president at a rally, May 21, 2011 in Atlanta. Though he never held public office he worked on the Bob Dole and Jack Kemp campaign in 1996, ran for president briefly in 2000 and ran for Georgia state senate in 2004. (David Goldman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Republican presidential hopefuls Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain, cross paths during the taping of a radio show at the Barley House, May 31, 2011 in Concord, N.H. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Herman Cain speaks in the spin room following the Republican presidential primary debate June 13, 2011 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Cain repeated his earlier statements the he would be uncomfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet (Darren Mccollester / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Herman Cain speaks during the "'Energy Independence Day Tea Party" rally on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, on July 4, 2011. (Joseph Kaczmarek / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Herman Cain talks to reporters as dozens of Tea Party supporters rally near the U.S. Capitol against raising the debt limit in Washington, July 27, 2011. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Herman Cain talks to voters from the Des Moines Register's Soapbox during the second day of the Iowa State Fair August 12, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa. The Republican candidates attended the fair in hopes of winning the Iowa Straw Poll, but Cain finished 5th. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Herman Cain visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, Aug. 24, 2011. It was Cain's first trip to Israel where he also attended Glenn Becks "Restoring Courage" event. (Bernat Armangue / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Republican presidential hopefuls, from left, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and former Gov. of Utah Jon Huntsman, pose for photographs on Sept. 7, 2011 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., for the Republican presidential candidates debate. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Herman Cain speaks to delegates during the Republican Party of Florida Presidency 5 Convention in Orlando, Florida, Sept. 24, 2011. (Phelan Ebenhack / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Herman Cain talks with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show at NBC Studios on September 30, 2011 in Burbank, California. (Kevin Winter/nbcuniversal / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. After strong comeback and winning Florida's straw poll, Herman Cain makes a campaign stop and launches his new book "This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House," outside The Olde Blind Dog Irish Pub, Oct. 2, 2011, in Milton, Ga. (Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal & Constitution via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Herman Cain signs a copy of his new book for supporter Mary Wargula, of Dunwoody, Ga., Oct. 2, 2011 in Milton, Ga. Cain has written five books, two of which published during his current presidential campaign. (Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal & Constitution via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain arrives to address the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington on Oct. 7, 2011. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in the Republican Presidential debate hosted by Bloomberg and the Washington Post on Oct. 11, 2011 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. The debate focused the discussion on the economy giving Cain an opportunity to promote his 9-9-9 plan, which was mentioned 24 times in the two-hour event. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Herman Cain announces that he is suspending his campaign as a Republican presidential candidate while his wife Gloria Cain stand behind him during the scheduled opening of a local campaign headquarters on Dec. 3, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. Cain had taken time to reassess the condition of his campaign "because of all this media firestorm stuff," adding, "my wife and family comes first." (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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