Yesterday lawyer Gloria Allred introduced Sharon Bialek to the world, and gave us the first specific allegations of inappropriate behavior against presidential candidate Herman Cain. What she described is not merely lewd, but borderline assault. Cain denies her allegations, and intends to speak at length in a press conference this afternoon.
Before this, we had only two anonymous women who made vague references to something Cain did to make them uncomfortable, leading to modest severance packages when they left the National Restaurant Association he presided over. A third woman was rumored to have some complaint against Cain’s behavior, but never filed any formal charges with the National Restaurant Association. I don’t know if we have conclusively established whether this third person was in fact Sharon Bialek, but let’s assume for the moment they’re different people.
There has been wall-to-wall saturation coverage of these mysterious allegations, with literally dozens of times more stories filed about Cain than the media devoted to far more credible and well-sourced allegations against President Bill Clinton… but none of the people spilling all that ink, pro or con, knows what Cain supposedly did, or who he supposedly did it to. We therefore have no way to compare Bialek’s tale to any other accusation leveled against Cain.
Our only background is three mysterious accusers, one of whom never got around to acting on her complaints. Virtually the only solid detail to have escaped about these incidents is that Cain made a “not overtly sexual” hand gesture, in which he told one of the women she was roughly the same height as his wife. If Cain treated any of these other women in a manner comparable to Bialek’s allegations, would the “not overtly sexual” hand gesture be the only detail to have leaked out thus far? Would the other accusers have settled for such small severance agreements, and signed non-disclosure agreements, if Cain had not merely created an “uncomfortable environment,” but aggressively propositioned or manhandled them?
All of these alleged incidents occurred during a very narrow window of time, while Cain ran the National Restaurant Association between 1996 and 1999. No other allegations from before, or after, this period have been reported, anonymously or otherwise. Was Cain a rampaging beast during those three years, but otherwise well-behaved? Is Sharon Bialek supposed to be the only woman he assaulted? That doesn’t seem like the kind of behavior that would happen only once, especially since the crime scene was a car brazenly parked outside the offices of the very organization Cain headed.
None of these questions clears Cain, any more than secretive allegations and events with no witnesses should convict him among fair-minded observers. However, this is a trial in the court of public opinion, where the rules are very different than a court of law. People will arrive at a variety of conclusions based on what they think about Herman Cain, the media, sexual harassment, the conduct of the Cain campaign, and the way Bialek presents her case. The confused handling of the case by Cain’s campaign has cost him credibility with some people. Appearing on stage with Gloria Allred costs Bialek credibility with others.
J.D. Gordon, the vice president of communications for Herman Cain, says the media should be asking “who’s paying Gloria Allred’s fee, how did Ms. Bialek get introduced to Ms. Allred, and was she paid to come forward with these false accusations, or was she promised employment?” Aren’t those good questions? They may well have perfectly satisfactory answers. Or are we not allowed to ask any questions about Bialek at all?
The standard narrative about sexual harassment, before every last one of the rules was spontaneously rewritten to benefit Bill Clinton, was that women don’t come forward because they’re afraid of being investigated and insulted. This is an understandable concern. Unfortunately, in a case like Cain’s, we don’t have anything else to go on, except for our opinions of the parties involved. This is almost entirely a test of credibility. Cain has plenty of character witnesses, and so does Bialek. In fact, Allred clearly understood the nature of the contest, as she invested great effort in presenting Bialek’s resume: she’s a career woman, she’s a registered Republican, she attended Tea Party events, and she has affidavits from personal friends that she complained about Cain’s behavior – without any details – in 1997.
Since Bialek’s debut yesterday, a few more details about her have come to light. The Chicago Tribune reports that she has a history of financial problems:
Records show she twice has filed for personal bankruptcy, first in 1991 and then again in 2001. In the latter case, she claimed $5,700 in assets and more than $36,000 in liabilities. Among the creditors seeking payment was a management firm demanding back rent of $4,500, four credit card companies and a lawyer asking for his legal fees.
After the case was discharged, she accused a former boyfriend of harassing her for repayment of a loan, court records in the bankruptcy case show. Bialek borrowed $4,500 from William Concha, though Concha now believes she had no intention of paying him back, according to his brother, Mario.
Reached Monday night in Spain, William Concha declined comment.
At least two liens have been filed against Bialek, according to records from the Cook County recorder of deeds.
The IRS filed a tax lien against her in 2009 for nearly $5,200. In August, the Illinois Department of Revenue claimed Bialek owed the state more than $4,300, including penalties and interest, relating to income taxes from 2004, according to county records.
Court records also show creditors took legal action against her during the past decade, including at least one lawsuit filed in Cook County.
None of this means her story is presumptively untrue, but for some it will mitigate the presumption of selflessness behind her story. She gets automatic credibility from the perception that she’s a selfless whistleblower with no political, personal, or financial axe to grind.
The Tribune provides commentary from people who speak well of Bialek, but also relays this puzzling detail:
Bialek said she shared her allegations with her then-boyfriend and another male friend shortly after her meeting with Cain. However, the man she is now engaged to said she did not tell him about her history with the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO until Friday night, when she told him she was going to New York for the news conference.
Her fiance, Mark Harwood, said he was in “a bit of shock” but admired her decision to come forward.
“It’s not an anti-political thing. It’s not a money thing,” said Harwood, who shares a large, five-bedroom home with Bialek in north suburban Mundelein. “She’s just trying to do the right thing, and that takes guts.”
(Emphasis mine.) Now, Herman Cain did not burst upon the public scene Friday night. He’s been one of the leading candidates in the GOP presidential race for several months, and previously ran for the Senate. He’s been at the center of a simply unprecedented media firestorm for a week. Bialek is a registered Republican who is politically engaged enough to attend Tea Party rallies. And she just got around to mention borderline sexual assault to her fiancée last Friday, in the course of explaining why she needed to fly to New York? It’s not unimaginable, but it certainly is odd.
Speaking of that Tea Party rally, which was held just one month ago, Cain was there. Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun-Times reports that Bialek greeted the man who attacked her when she asked him for a job 15 years ago like this:
They hugged each other backstage in a full embrace like old friends.
She grabbed his arm and whispered in his left ear.
She kept talking as he bent to listen, and he kept saying “Uh, huh. Uh, huh.”
“I don’t know if what she was giving him was a sucker punch, but he didn’t put his arm down while she was talking to him,” said the Sneed source.
The source in question is female radio host Amy Jacobson of WIND, who professes to be “shocked” that Bialek turned out to be the Fourth Cain Accuser:
“I recall Sharon was hell bent on going backstage at the TeaCon convention — where she cornered him,” said Jacobson.
“I was surprised to hear she claims she did not know Cain was going to be there. Cain was expected and was late.”
Bialek told the media on Monday: “I went up to him and asked him if he remembered me. I wanted to see if he would be man enough to own up to what he had done 14 years ago.”
So, are we supposed to believe Bialek without question, but dismiss Jacobson’s account out of hand? Let’s suppose Bialek made her peace with Cain’s aggression and decided to be polite to him a month ago, but changed her mind after the anonymous accusations against Cain became a huge national story. That’s not entirely unreasonable, and it doesn’t automatically ruin her credibility… but shouldn’t she have explained that when she was rolling out life-destroying accusations against Cain at a major press conference, organized by a celebrity lawyer? Does it matter to anyone who thinks Cain’s goose is cooked that Bialek might have edited some details of her story to make it sound more damaging?
With Allred hovering over her shoulder, Bialek has become an overnight media sensation. Appearing on the CBS Early Show this morning, she claimed she stepped forward to help Herman Cain:
Sharon Bialek insisted Tuesday that her explosive allegation of Herman Cain’s sexual entitlement is true and she came forward with her story from 1997 because she wanted to help the Republican candidate in his bid to unseat President Obama.
“I actually did it because I wanted to help him. I wanted to give him a platform to come clean, to tell the truth,” Bialek said on CBS’ The Early Show.
“And he still hasn’t done it and it’s really a shame because he could have,” she said.
[…] Asked if she would consider voting for Cain if he came clean, Bialek did not rule it out.
“I’d have to think about that. I hope that he does and I’d have to think about that one,” she said.
Now, if Sharon Bialek sincerely believes she was “helping” Cain in any way, she’s extremely naïve, if not mentally ill. Of course she doesn’t really believe that. She’s very deliberately trying to polish the presumed credibility she gets from the perception she is acting against self-interest. Wow, she still really likes the guy who tried to shove her head onto his crotch when she asked him for a job in 1997, and she might even still vote for him! That makes her super-believable! This kind of idiocy is entirely characteristic of Gloria Allred’s tutelage.
Another Allred hallmark is the juicy book deal, a prize that certainly awaits anyone who can torpedo a promising presidential campaign. Again, this doesn’t mean Bialek is lying – everything she claims could be true, her accusations could ruin Cain, and she could go on to write a best-selling book about it. But since we have nothing except our relative perceptions of Cain and Bialek to go on, and Cain is presumptively self-interested for obvious reasons, why is it unfair to consider an equally obvious, selfish motive that would explain why Bialek’s integrity is not entirely above question?
The court of public opinion has few rules, and its bailiffs are the media. (If you’re inclined to subtract credibility based on self-interest, you should be careful to mark off points for the media’s obvious interest in salacious stories, harming Republican candidates, and distracting Americans from the Obama disaster.) This will not be an easy contest for Herman Cain to win… and he has to win, in order for his candidacy to survive. Republicans do not win ties.