By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Dogged by sexual harassment allegations from the 1990s, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is trying to project an image of campaign business as usual Wednesday even as the lawyer for one of his accusers seeks to free her from a confidentiality agreement so she can tell her side of the story.
The Georgia businessman planned to give a speech on health care in northern Virginia followed by a trip to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional Republicans amid fallout from the disclosure that at least two female employees got financial payouts from the National Restaurant Association after complaining that Cain, who led the trade group at the time, had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior.
Wednesday was supposed to be the culmination of a three-day attempt at courting official Washington.
But it was clear that furor wasn't going away.
Joel P. Bennett, the lawyer for one of two women, said in media interviews Tuesday that he had asked the trade group to waive an agreement and allow her to talk openly about her allegations and to respond to Cain's claims that the complaints were "totally baseless and totally false."
"I know her very well," he told CNN late Tuesday, "and I'm sure she would not make a false complaint."
Bennett told The Associated Press he would have more to say after he meets with his client Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the restaurant association, Sue Hensley, said Tuesday night that the group had not been contacted by Bennett.
Over the past two days, Cain has admitted he knew of one agreement between the restaurant association and a woman who accused him of sexual harassment. He has said the woman initially asked for a large financial settlement but ultimately received two to three months' pay as part of a separation agreement. Cain also acknowledged remembering one of the woman's accusations against him, saying he stepped close to her to make a reference to her height, and told her she was the same height as his wife.
He has said he is not aware of agreements or settlements with any other women, though Politico - which first disclosed the allegations - reported that the trade group had given settlements to at least two female employees who accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior.
The New York Times reported Tuesday night that the trade group gave a female employee a year's salary in severance pay, $35,000, after she said an encounter with Cain made her uncomfortable working there. The newspaper cited three people with knowledge of the payment to the woman, who was not Bennett's client.
Surging atop the polls only two months before Republicans begin choosing their presidential nominee, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO scheduled a tour of Washington this week to introduce himself to the nation's power brokers and show he is ready for high office.
But, the night before his first appearances Monday, Politico reported the years-old sexual harassment complaints against him.
Since then, Cain has offered a series of sometimes-conflicting statements over what happened and didn't happen, and what he knew about financial payouts.
He has repeatedly denied he ever harassed anyone but has struggled to remain consistent on the details. He first denied remembering the specifics of the complaints, then offered up some details of an incident in which a woman apparently had trouble with a hand gesture he says he used to compare her height to that of his wife, Gloria. He said in interviews that the details had come back to him during an intense day of questioning.
By Tuesday night, Cain had begun to try to pivot toward Congress and the war for lawmakers' endorsements that could mean critical on-the-ground support and campaign cash. Cain's rival in Iowa, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has a sophisticated network of surrogates in Congress trying to coax their colleagues into his camp. So far, they've rounded up at least 33 endorsements. Cain has none.
But lawmakers remained interested.
The delegation from Cain's home state, Georgia, helped set up a series of private events intended to introduce Cain around Capitol Hill.
Cain dined near the Capitol with a gathering of Republican senators Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, after a speech in nearby Alexandria, Va., Cain was to head back to Capitol Hill for a speech to House members on health care.
From there, it was back-to-back events set up by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga. First, Cain was to meet and greet House members at the discreet Capitol Hill Club for a conversation about health care policy. Then it was on to the Republican National Committee, where Cain was to speak with members of the Georgia delegation, a spokesman for Graves said.
At some point, Cain was to meet House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan is meeting presidential candidates in his role at the Republican National Committee.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)