Herman Cain got high praise from "J. Edgar" director Clint Eastwood, who told the Los Angeles Times Monday that the presidential hopeful has qualities that set him apart from everyone else who's vying to be commander in chief.
Herman Cain got high praise from "J. Edgar" director Clint Eastwood, who told the Los Angeles Times Monday that the presidential hopeful has qualities that set him apart from everyone else who's vying to be commander in chief. REUTERS

GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain is under fire by the Web site Politico for accusations of sexual harassment in the 1990s, when he was head of the National Restaurant Association and caused at least two female employees to leave their jobs after complaining about Cain's sexually inappropriate behavior.

According to sources from Cain's tenure as president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association , which lasted from 1996 to 1999, two women at the trade group complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain. The women felt angry and uncomfortable after interactions with the business mogul, and they reported him to colleagues and senior association officials.

The two female employees signed agreements with the National Restaurant Association, trading financial payouts in the five figures for leaving the group and for not talking about their experiences.

Late Sunday night, Cain campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon told the Associated Press night that the campaign denied the report.

Inside-the-Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain, Gordon said in a written statement. 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.

The revelations come at a time when Cain's meteoric rise in the polls has many considering him the front-runner in the Republican primaries, with Cain claiming his business acumen and experience running the restaurant industry have prepared him to be president of the United States.

It also comes as the Republican presidential hopeful continues to face ever-increasing scrutiny for both his unorthodox campaign choices and his lack of political experience, including recent troubles like the departure of several key aides and the backlash that followed the Cain Smoking Ad.

Have You Ever Been Accused?

Cain became head of the National Restaurant Association after leaving his position as CEO of Godfather's Pizza in 1996. His time as president and CEO of the association saw the already powerful group appear on Forbes' list of Washington's 25 most influential groups, rising as high as No. 15, and the group took on a greater public role as an advocate for the restaurant industry than ever before. Despite his successes, Cain has often downplayed his tenure at the restaurant group in favor of his experience running Godfather's.

In a series of public and private statements over the past week, Cain's campaign staff repeatedly declined to respond directly on whether Cain faced allegations of sexual harassment, and whether any women involved received settlements in exchange for their silence. Today, after Politico broke the story, the Cain campaign released an official denial of the report.

Cain himself, in a tense sidewalk encounter outside the Washington bureau of CBS News last week, evaded questions about past sexual harassment. [I've] had thousands of people working for me, Cain said, refusing to give a statement until I see some facts or some concrete evidence.

When his campaign staff was given the name of one of the two women, Cain again evaded. I am not going to comment on that, he said earlier Sunday.

Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life, of harassment by a woman? a reporter asked.

Cain glared at the reporter and said nothing. After repeating the question three times, the journalist did get a reply, but without an answer attached.

Have you, Cain asked the reporter, ever been accused of sexual harassment?

She Was Offered a Way Out to Keep Quiet.

Politico's sources span everything from former board members and current or past staff to official documents and recollections by close associates within the National Restaurant Association. Combined, these sources describe, in detail, the episodes that both women felt showed inappropriate behavior by Cain.

Cain allegedly initiated and continued conversations filled with sexual innuendo and suggestive questions of a personal nature. Such conversations occurred during events for the restaurant association as well as at the trade group's offices. Both women also reported physical gestures by Cain. None of these physical gestures were overtly sexual, but the women who experienced and witnessed them reported feeling uncomfortable, and they regarded Cain's gestures as improper and inappropriate behavior in a professional relationship.

One source close to Cain confirmed that claims of sexual harassment were founded, saying he and other members had otherwise liked Cain and were disturbed by the revelations.

I happen to know there were sealed settlements reached in the plural, the source said. I think that anybody who thinks this was a one-time, one-person transgression would be mistaken.

Politico has confirmed the identity of both women allegedly involved in the sexual harassment cases. One of them was a former association board member at the restaurant association who some sources say suffered an unwanted sexual advance from Cain at a hotel as well as being subjected to inappropriate language and behavior.

She was offered a financial package to leave the association and she did, said another former board member who remembered the incident. What I took offense at was that it was clear that rather than deal with the issue, there was an effort to hush it up. She was offered a way out to keep quiet.

Smear Campaign Against A True Patriot

When Gordon e-mailed an initial response to Politico 's accusations of sexual harassment, he dismissed the charges out of hand. These are old and tired allegations that never stood up to the facts, Gordon said. This was settled amicably among all parties many years ago.

Gordon also said the re-emergence of the matter, over a decade after settlement, was proof that the rumors were unfounded and meant to start a smear campaign against the GOP presidential candidate. Dredging this up now, he said, is merely part of a smear campaign meant to discredit a true patriot who is shaking up the political status quo.

Since critics haven't had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain's ideas, Gordon added, they are trying to attack him personally.

On Wednesday, Gordon clarified his comments, saying that the matter had not been settled in the legal sense but rather had been resolved between the concerned parties. He continued to defend Cain against accusations of sexual harassment, however, and repeated his earlier assertion that Cain was innocent of any wrongdoing.

When you're in a leadership position, Gordon said, sometimes people just try to take a shot at you.

Cain, who has been married to wife Gloria for 43 years, is at least vaguely familiar with the case, according to one campaign staffer. The aide said the candidate told him claims of sexual harassment would likely surface during his presidential campaign, noting a time when he fired an employee in 1999 and was then accused of sexual misconduct.

Former Colleagues Incredulous

Denise Marie Fugo, the vice chair of the National Restaurant Association board of directors during Cain's tenure, said she never heard anything about sexual harassment charges involving Cain, echoing statements by then-chair Ron Magruder and immediate past chair Joseph Fassler.

I have never heard that. It would be news to me, said Fugo. He's very gracious.

Fassler, who helped bring Cain on as CEO in the 1990s, said he would have acted if any allegations of unwanted attention had surfaced, but claimed nothing ever did. Nobody ever called me, complained about this.

Fassler added that Cain had always seemed to treat men and women equally and identically, asserting that unwanted advances were not in his character.

It's not what I know of him, Fassler said.

Mary Ann Cricchio has similarly come to Cain's defense. Cricchio, elected to the board in 1998, said Cain was kind and respectful to everyone, leaving such a good impression that everyone who'd worked with him was eager to support the Cain 2012 campaign. He had the unanimous support of the whole room when he announced his presidential bid at a group event in January.

Peter Kilgore, who has been the association's general counsel since the 1990s, has declined to comment on the allegations of sexual misconduct. Please understand that our corporate policy is not to discuss personnel matters [other than to confirm employment and dates of employment] with outside sources, including media, Kilgore said in a statement. I must respectfully decline to comment on your questions or any allegations you may be looking into that concern current or former employees of the association.