WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Herman Cain, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has hired a high-profile defamation lawyer to keep an eye on the sexual harassment accusations made public by two women this week.
Atlanta attorney Lin Wood told Reuters Thursday he was not hired to scare, intimidate or threaten anyone from making statements, but to monitor the accusations against Cain and respond accordingly.
Wood, a top libel and defamation lawyer, was hired on Monday morning when it became clear that Sharon Bialek was about to become the first of four women alleging inappropriate behavior by Cain to go public with her accusations.
“I would certainly at some point and time give him my legal evaluation of whether any of these particular statements are potentially actionable,” Wood said. “But I was not hired to run out and file a lawsuit against anybody.”
The two public accusers — Bialek and Karen Kraushaar — are planning to hold a joint news conference, but it has not been scheduled. They have accused Cain of inappropriate behavior in the late 1990s when he was head of the National Restaurant Association.
Cain has repeatedly denied the sexual harassment accusations. At a Republican debate Wednesday, he said: “The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.”
Wood represented Richard Jewell, who was suspected and cleared of the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing and later filed libel suits against media organizations and a local college, some of which were settled.
Wood’s other notable clients included John and Patsy Ramsey, suspected but later cleared in the unsolved murder of their daughter JonBenet Ramsey. The couple filed defamation suits against a number of media companies.
Wood also filed a defamation lawsuit against Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne on behalf of former congressman Gary Condit, who was romantically involved with intern Chandra Levy but never an official suspect in her 2001 murder. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Wood said he was monitoring what was said about his client. “If there are public statements, the decision about whether they merit legal action is something that can be decided much further down the road,” he said. “There is no rush to deal with that issue at the present time.”
It is difficult under U.S. law for a government official or public figure to bring a successful libel or defamation claim. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that a public official must prove “actual malice,” meaning the accuser knew it was false or showed reckless disregard for whether it was false.
The actual malice standard would be “an almost insurmountable burden to meet” for someone in Cain’s position, said Robert Corn-Revere, a lawyer specializing in free speech and other First Amendment issues. “I think courts would be reluctant to try and assess the truthfulness of political charges and countercharges.”
Wood acknowledged that it is difficult for a public figure to bring a defamation lawsuit — “the question of do you file a lawsuit or not is not simply based on whether you have false accusations.”
If the women accusing Cain hold a joint news conference, Wood said “I’ll be watching carefully” and respond to it.
He said in general, anyone considering making public accusations of wrongdoing against another person should carefully consider the wisdom and potential consequences in taking such action.
“Anyone should think twice before you take that type of action. And I think it’s particularly true when you are making serious accusations against someone running for president of the United States, but I think it’s equally true if you are making those accusations against your next door neighbor.”
Asked to respond to Wood’s “think twice” comment, Kraushaar’s lawyer, Joel Bennett, said: “I have not heard his statement, but statements of that nature could intimidate or discourage women from reporting sexual harassment.”
Wood said he was retained by Cain and not by his campaign. He said he feels strongly about “guilt by accusation” cases. “I have seen how it has devastated the lives of other clients of mine and I would hate to see it happen to Mr. Cain.”
Additional reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Paul Simao