POLITICS

Cain says he was 'falsely accused' of harassment

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WASHINGTON (AP) - 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."

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.

But throughout the day, 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.

"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 with Fox News, Cain said he did know about it. "Yes, there was some sort of settlement or termination," he said.

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."

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" and that the woman "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.

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.

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 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.

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