NEW YORK (Reuters) - A woman accused U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain on Monday of reaching under her skirt in 1997, adding to sexual harassment allegations that are threatening to derail his campaign.
Cain, a former pizza company executive, has led many opinion polls in the race to be the Republican nominee to face President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in next year’s election.
Sharon Bialek said Cain made the unwanted advance after dinner in Washington when she asked for help finding a job after she was laid off by the National Restaurant Association, which he then headed.
Bialek, who identified herself as a registered Republican and single mother from Chicago, put a public face on a growing problem for Cain’s campaign. The 65-year-old candidate quickly denied her account, saying all allegations of sexual harassment against him were “completely false.”
Bialek, looking composed and confident before a phalanx of television cameras, said she had not filed a complaint against Cain but was now coming forward to “give a face and a voice to those women” who did not wish to go public.
Two other women lodged formal complaints against Cain when he headed the restaurant association. One said through her lawyer last week she received a series of unwanted advances.
“I want you, Mr. Cain, to come clean, to admit what you did, admit you were inappropriate to people and then move forward,” Bialek said. “Mr. Cain, I am for you. Make this right.”
Bialek, appearing with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, said that after the dinner in July 1997, Cain drove her toward the restaurant association offices, parked nearby and offered what Allred called his version of a “stimulus package.”
“Instead of going into the offices, he suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg, under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it toward his crotch. I was very, very surprised and very, very shocked,” Bialek said.
“I said: ‘What are you doing? You know I have a boyfriend. This isn’t what I came here for.’ Mr. Cain said: ‘You want a job, right?’ I asked him to stop and he did. I asked him to take me back to my hotel, which he did right away.”
Allred said she had signed declarations from Bialek’s boyfriend at the time, a pediatrician, and a businessman whom Bialek viewed as a mentor. Both said Bialek told them about the incident shortly after it happened.
“She told the businessman that Mr Cain had been aggressive with her,” Allred said.
Allred said Bialek does not want to file a lawsuit against Cain and is not seeking any money.
Cain never harassed anyone, spokesman J.D. Gordon said, and the candidate attacked the news media for its focus on “gaffes, gotcha questions and time devoted to trivial nonsense.”
Cain said, as an executive, he had turned around Burger King and Godfather’s Pizza.
“At some point during a career like this, someone will not like things you do or how you do it. Someone will complain,” he said. “That is just the nature of things if you’ve ever done much in your life.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sunday showed the percentage of Republicans who viewed Cain favorably dropped 9 points, to 57 percent from 66 percent a week earlier.
“It’s attempted sexual assault if it happened,” Bernie Grimm, a criminal defense lawyer in Washington, said of Bialek’s accusation.
He said there is a statute of limitations of five years but, even when an accusation is timely, prosecutors rarely bring a case if the only evidence is the accuser’s word.
Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the latest accusations “can’t be good for Cain’s campaign.
“He’s now going to be asked about those questions again and, whatever the truth is, the more there are, the more they create doubt among people who might be inclined to support him,” Black said.
Bialek said she last saw Cain at a Tea Party event in Chicago a month ago and asked him: ‘Do you remember me?’”
“I guess I wanted to see if he was going to be man enough to own up to what he had done 14 years ago,” she said.
Bialek said Cain replied that he remembered her from the restaurant association’s education foundation and “looked uncomfortable” before being whisked away by handlers.
One of Cain’s Republican presidential adversaries called on Sunday for more information on the allegations.
“It has got to come out in total,” Jon Huntsman told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “Legitimate questions have been raised and that information has to come forward.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland and David Ingram in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by John O'Callaghan