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Cain Accuser Got a Year’s Salary in Severance Pay By JIM RUTENBERG, JEFF ZELENY and MIKE McINTIRE/NY Times
Published: November 1, 2011

WASHINGTON — The National Restaurant Association gave $35,000 — a year’s salary — in severance pay to a female staff member in the late 1990s after an encounter with Herman Cain, its chief executive at the time, made her uncomfortable working there, three people with direct knowledge of the payment said on Tuesday.

The woman was one of two whose accusations of sexual harassment by Mr. Cain, now a Republican candidate for president, led to paid severance agreements during his 1996-99 tenure at the association. Disclosure of the scale of the severance further challenged his initial description of the matter as a “witch hunt,” as did new descriptions from the woman’s friends and colleagues of her level of discomfort at work.

Adding to the pressure on Mr. Cain, a lawyer for the second woman called on the restaurant association to release her from a confidentiality agreement signed as part of her settlement, raising the prospect that she could publicly dispute Mr. Cain’s account of what happened. The lawyer said the confidentiality agreement had left her unable to respond to Mr. Cain’s denials of any inappropriate behavior toward the women.

“He’s basically saying: ‘I never harassed anyone. These claims have no merit,’ ” said the lawyer, Joel P. Bennett of Washington, who represented the woman in her initial agreement. “And I’m sure my client would have a comeback to that.”

The precise nature of the encounters between Mr. Cain and the two women remained murky. He has said over the past two days that he joked with one of the women about her height. But he has not addressed what happened with the other woman — the one said to have received the $35,000 payment. Her friends and colleagues said she had told them at the time that she was deeply uncomfortable about the situation.

Mr. Cain’s accounts evolved over a second day on Tuesday and did nothing to help him put the situation behind him. And his shifting answers continued to raise questions about the capabilities of a campaign that seasoned party hands still view with skepticism.

Asked Tuesday night on the Fox News Channel whether he would ask the association to comply with Mr. Bennett’s request, Mr. Cain said, “I can’t give you a definitive answer on that until we consult with our attorneys.”

He added that there could be “legal implications” if the women were released from confidentiality agreements, though he did not say what those implications might be.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant association, Sue Hensley, said that Mr. Bennett “has not been in contact with the association,” and that “if we are contacted by Mr. Bennett, we will respond as appropriate.”

She did not address questions about the details of the $35,000 severance arrangement with the other woman. A spokesman for Mr. Cain, J. D. Gordon, also declined to discuss the details of the arrangement.

Asked about the encounter that, according to friends and former colleagues, had made the woman uncomfortable at the restaurant association, Mr. Gordon said, “Mr. Cain has already explained the situation in some detail in numerous public appearances.”

Four people with contemporaneous knowledge of the encounter said it had taken place in the context of a work outing during which there had been heavy drinking — a hallmark, they said, of outings with an organization that represents the hospitality industry. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid being publicly drawn into the dispute, and declined to provide details of the encounter, saying they did not want to violate the privacy of the woman.

Two of them said that other factors had been involved in her severance, and that other workplace issues had been making her unhappy at the association as well. But they said the encounter with Mr. Cain had added an emotional charge and contributed to the size of her payment. One former colleague familiar with the details said such a severance was not common, especially for an employee with the woman’s relatively short tenure and her pay grade.