Reporters trail Herman Cain on Capitol Hill. He denies any wrongdoing while… (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — During his three years heading the National Restaurant Assn. in the 1990s, Herman Cain worked long hours and, with his family living out of town, socialized at Washington-area restaurants with his subordinates from the organization's headquarters.
Three women claim Cain's behavior over the years sometimes crossed the line into sexual harassment. Two of them received financial settlements from the association after filing complaints. Another former employee said he saw Cain, after an evening of drinking and socializing, make inappropriate advances toward a young female staff member.
Cain has denied wrongdoing, suggesting that revelations about the past charges were part of a calculated effort to undermine his presidential campaign.
Until this week, Cain's time at the association drew little attention. But the Republican presidential candidate's conduct in those years now has come under intense scrutiny.
Interviews with half a dozen people who worked at the restaurant association at the time paint a mixed picture. Some said it was "an open secret" that Cain had made inappropriate comments — and sometimes invited female employees to his Washington hotel or apartment. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter and worried about possible repercussions
Others, like Steve Caldeira, who worked for Cain as the association's vice president for communications and marketing, defended him as a model boss and said that the accusations sounded completely out of character. Caldeira and others said the atmosphere at the hospitality industry trade association before and after Cain's time encouraged executives and board members to have meals and drinks with the staff.
Cain's booming voice and laugh rang through the organization's headquarters, Caldeira said, and Cain occasionally took groups of staff to swank restaurants that belonged to the association or to the Jefferson Hotel, where Cain lived until he found a corporate apartment in Crystal City, Va.
Caldeira said that Cain ordered drinks at these outings, but that he did not see him overindulge.
"We would go out to dinner and share a bottle of wine sometimes," recalled Caldeira, who reported directly to Cain. Of the harassment allegations, Caldeira said, "This is not the Herman Cain I knew."
A former employee has said publicly that he witnessed Cain act inappropriately toward a female junior staff member.
On an Oklahoma radio show Wednesday, Chris Wilson, a Republican consultant who did polling for the association during Cain's tenure, said "everybody was very aware" of Cain's improper behavior toward the employee. Wilson told KTOK radio he witnessed an incident at a restaurant in Crystal City, Va. He supports Texas Gov. Rick Perry and has conducted polling for a pro-Perry super PAC.
A second association employee concurred, saying Cain's actions were widely known among the staff.
But J.D. Gordon, a spokesman for the Cain campaign, dismissed Wilson's account, saying that "his comments and ties to the Perry campaign as the pollster for the super PAC" spoke for themselves.
Cain also was lauded by the man who hired him, Joe Fassler, then-chairman of the board at the association and chief executive of a Phoenix-based food service company that owned truck stops, Burger King franchises and concessions at stadiums and national parks.
Fassler and others say the Cain era transformed the quiet trade association, making it a standout Washington lobbying group known for its ability to mobilize members on legislative and political issues.
There were occasional complaints during the Cain era from those who noted his large paycheck. He received a base salary of about $400,000 year, higher than his predecessor. Also, Cain was criticized by some for high spending on travel.
Fassler said Cain "traveled much more than his predecessor, and that's what he was supposed to do."
"He immediately changed the visibility and the reach of the organization. He was like an atomic mouse, racing all over the place," Fassler said.
Gordon, the campaign spokesman, said Cain was "proud of his track record" running the group.
Fassler and other Cain backers said they were skeptical of the allegations of misbehavior. Fassler said he had not heard about them or the financial settlements until they were reported publicly last weekend. Politico reported Thursday that one of the women received a $45,000 payout. The New York Times previously reported that the second woman was paid $35,000.
Joel Bennett, a Washington lawyer who helped negotiate a settlement with the association on behalf of one of the women, has been seeking to lift a confidentiality provision in the deal that bars his client from talking.
Bennett said his client did not want to speak publicly about her experience, so on Thursday he asked the association to approve a statement by her for public release. An association spokeswoman said the group would respond Friday.
Only the association's consent is needed, Bennett said, because Cain was not a party to the agreement.