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.
Allred said Bialek, who is 50 and the mother of a 13-year-old son, was born and raised in Chicago. She lives with her boyfriend, who works in the medical equipment industry, in Mundelein, a Chicago suburb. In 1983, she graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in communication.
Prior to working for the National Restaurant Assn., Allred said, Bialek co-hosted a TV cooking show, and also worked for Revlon and the Easter Seals Society. After leaving the restaurant association, she spent five years working in sales at WGN Radio and two years at CBS Radio as managing director of nontraditional revenue. Records show Bialek voted in the Republican primary in 2008 but is not currently registered to vote.
Bialek did not come forward in 1997, Allred said, because she was no longer an employee of the restaurant association when the incident took place. But Allred held up two sheets of paper she said were the sworn affidavits of Bialek’s then-boyfriend and a businessman friend, both of whom Allred said were told by Bialek about the encounter at the time. Bialek said she did not share the graphic details with either man because she was “embarrassed.”
At the news conference, Bialek, who wore a black, knee-length dress, spoke haltingly from a statement. The first time she heard Cain give a speech, she said, was the keynote address at a luncheon for high school students during the restaurant association’s annual convention in Chicago.
“He was incredibly inspirational,” she said. “When he sat down, I said, ‘When are you running for president?’ ” That meeting inspired her later request for his assistance in finding a new job, she said.
Bialek said she had not seen Cain since the 1997 incident until about a month ago at a tea party conference sponsored by a Chicago radio station.
“I did not know that he would be there,” she said. “I went up to him and asked if he remembered me. I wanted to see if he would be man enough to own up to what he had done some 14 years ago.” She said Cain said he remembered her and “looked uncomfortable.”
Since they were first raised a week ago, the accusations against Cain have unleashed a torrent of disbelief and anger from his supporters. Some high-profile backers have claimed that Cain is the victim of liberals trying to bring down a black conservative by playing on racial stereotypes about black men.
Many Republicans have said they put no credence in accounts by unnamed women. But this latest twist, with its level of specificity, could change that.
“This is the first time that a real live person has come forward and made specific allegations, so this may cause people to take a second look at these charges,” said veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black.
A longtime Democratic strategist who worked for President Clinton during his intern sex scandal had a more dire prediction.
“Cain is a largely an undefined personality, and elections almost always come down to character and, specifically, who the public trusts,” said the strategist, Chris Lehane. The developments could hurt Cain among “Republican family value voters who have historically been moved by issues that go to personal moral rectitude.”
Cain’s campaign sought to turn attention on Allred, the Los Angeles lawyer who has often represented women claiming to be mistreated by powerful men, including Tiger Woods, Roman Polanski and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The news conference with Bialek took place in the same room at the Friar’s Club where Allred appeared months ago with a woman who claimed to have had a sexually tinged electronic relationship with former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat.
Abcarian reported from Los Angeles and Baum from New York.
Times staff writers Tom Hamburger and Maeve Reston and Tribune reporters Lisa Black and Katherine Skiba contributed to this report.