Sharon Bialek goes public with claims of sexual harassment by Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain — the first of his accusers to do so. (Richard Drew, Associated Press / November 7, 2011)

By Robin Abcarian and Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
November 7, 2011, 10:17 p.m.

In an escalation that sent Herman Cain’s presidential campaign into dangerous new territory, a woman offered a graphic public account of being groped by the Republican candidate 14 years ago during the same period in which three other women have anonymously claimed he harassed them.

With women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred at her side in New York and a national television audience watching, Sharon Bialek said she went public Monday to “give a face and voice to those women who cannot or do not wish to come forward.”

At the time cited by Bialek, Cain, the married father of two, was head of the National Restaurant Assn. in Washington and Bialek had recently been laid off from the association’s educational foundation in Chicago. The two had met at the group’s national convention earlier in 1997.

Bialek said she went to dinner with Cain to ask for help finding another position. After driving from the restaurant, she said, Cain parked the car and then “suddenly reached over and put his hand on my leg, under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it towards his crotch.”

When she expressed shock, she said Cain told her, “You want a job, right?”

Bialek said that she had traveled to Washington after setting up a meeting with Cain through his secretary. When she checked into the Capital Hilton, she was astonished to find herself in a “palatial suite,” she said, and assumed that her boyfriend had surprised her with the fancy room. But after Cain asked her how she liked her room, she said, “Mr. Cain smirked, then said, ‘I upgraded you.’ ”

Bialek said they then had drinks in the hotel bar and dined at an Italian restaurant. After dinner, Cain offered to show her the National Restaurant Assn. offices, and it was during the trip there that he stopped the car, she said.

The televised accusation vastly complicated Cain’s difficulties, replacing anonymous critics with a woman willing to be identified — and filmed — as she accused him. Moments after the news conference, Cain’s campaign emailed a denial. It did not address specifics.

“Just as the country finally begins to focus on our crippling $1.5 trillion national debt and the unacceptably high unemployment rate, now activist celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred is bringing forth more false allegations,” wrote Cain’s spokesman, J.D. Gordon.

Later, the campaign sent a statement to supporters blaming the newest accusations on Politico, the website that reported the first allegations a week ago, and ignoring the turn to a named accuser.

“It’s easy to make accusations when, by virtue of your anonymity, you don’t have to be held accountable for the claims you’re making,” the statement said. “It’s easy to publish them when, like Politico, you don’t follow basic rules of journalism by naming your sources or giving any details whatsoever about what supposedly happened.”

Bialek said she did not plan to file a lawsuit or seek compensation but wanted Cain to acknowledge his behavior. “Unfortunately, he is still in denial,” she told CNN on Monday night.

Cain kept a normal campaign schedule, including fundraisers in Los Angeles, but late Monday his campaign announced he would speak to reporters Tuesday in Arizona.

The three other women who have accused Cain of inappropriate sexual behavior worked for the National Restaurant Assn. during the time he ran it, from 1996 to 1999. Two have received settlements that required them to remain silent, according to news reports. Another told the Associated Press that she had not filed a formal complaint but had been harassed.

The attorney for one unnamed accuser, Joel Bennett, said Monday in an email message that the behavior alleged by Bialek “was similar” to what his client experienced before receiving a settlement.

As the only named accuser, Bialek and her background were at center stage Monday.

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