Cain’s Other Scandal

In case you missed it, frontrunner Herman Cain is facing allegations, reported last night by Politico, that he sexually harassed two women in the 1990s. It’s safe to say reporters are on this case—they’ve been slinging arrows (or at least trying to) and keeping Twitter abuzz all day long.

This is a story worth reporting, and there’s no reason to question the scoop. But the single-minded frenzy that has erupted over what is a still an anonymously-sourced story involving vaguely described charges and unnamed women has overshadowed another noteworthy Cain story that is more timely, and at least for now, more solidly sourced.

See Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice’s story yesterday: “State firm’s cash to Herman Cain may breach federal campaign, tax laws.”

Bice reports that there are things afoul with the financing of Cain’s campaign. Some of its start-up funds—which paid for things like Cain’s travel expenses and iPads—came from a Wisconsin-based non-profit that no longer exists called Prosperity USA. The organization was founded by Cain campaign operatives (the smoking) Mark Block and Linda Hansen.

Bice has the documents to back these claims up, and he talks to several campaign finance law experts who claim the documented transactions are illegal and “a mess.” Bice’s story is an important one, and the political press corps should pursue it with the same feverish assiduousness that they’ve brought to following up the Politco report.

Follow-up is particularly critical in this case because Bice’s report, while a commendable example of local enterprise reporting, is a long and really confusing read.

Campaign finance is certainly a technical and complex business (and it didn’t help that so many of the organizations have Prosperity in their title), but while Bice gives lots of detail in his piece, he left out some important basics and context for readers not steeped in the baroque ways of campaign finance law. After reading the piece, one is left with little sense of why these financial transactions are wrong, who acted wrongly—Cain? his operatives?—and what the consequences for the Cain campaign could be.

Block, the campaign operative who would seem to be behind much of the shady business documented in Bice’s story, did not return the columnist’s phone calls and finally responded to Bice’s requests by email last Friday:

“Will be able to respond to you, but need to schedule time to review questions. Obviously in the midst of a Presidential campaign I cannot drop everything.”

Block has been making the rounds on cable today, making his case against the media and the sexual harassment story. Let’s just hope someone has the sense to ask him about his other mess.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.