WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain 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 on 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 — had planned to hold a joint news conference, but Kraushaar on Thursday decided against it.
They have accused Cain of inappropriate behavior in the late 1990s when he was head of the National Restaurant Association.
Kraushaar had been trying to contact the other two women but had not heard from them, her attorney, Joel Bennett, said.
He said in a statement that his client had decided not to hold a press conference “unless and until the other women come forward and wish to participate.”
Cain has repeatedly denied the sexual harassment accusations. At a Republican debate on Wednesday, he said, “The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.” He said voters had shown support for him by “voting with their dollars.”
Cain, in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Thursday, was seen in a Fox News video with a group of supporters, one of whom mentions Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his confirmation hearings in 1991. Cain laughs and asks, “Is she going to endorse me?”
Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon was not immediately available for comment, but he told The New York Times the remark was “a joke.”
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 magazine 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.
In general, he said, 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, 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 felt 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 and Eric Beech