Herman Cain was more than an hour and a half late for his keynote speech at the Midwest Tea Party Convention in Schaumburg, and the crowd was getting restless.
But instead of rushing onstage when he arrived at the Oct. 1 event, Cain stopped to speak with a suburban woman who now claims he assaulted her, eyewitnesses said.
Sharon Bialek, a former WGN radio employee who had obtained backstage credentials for the event, "saw him as he was walking," said Amy Jacobson, a co-host at WIND 560 AM, which sponsored the event and where Bialek, of Glenview, is interviewing for a job.
"She was determined to talk to him and she got what she wanted," Jacobson said, saying it "looked like a tense few minutes. She was talking and he was listening."
Yet, Jacobson also said Bialek embraced Cain, briefly. "She hugged him. He did not hug her back."
Bialek told reporters that she went up to Cain that day at the Tea Party convention at the Renaissance Hotel and "asked him if he remembered me. I wanted to see if he would be man enough to own up to what he did 14 years ago."
Bialek, a former employee of the National Restaurant Association's educational foundation in Chicago, says she met Cain when the Georgia businessman was the head of that association. She said she went to Washington, D.C., where the organization is based, and met with Cain to ask his help in finding another job after she was laid off in 1997.
On the ride home from dinner, she said, Cain put his hand under her skirt and groped her.
At a news conference Tuesday, Cain explicitly denied Bialek's allegations, or even knowing her.
"When I first saw this lady do the press conference with (attorney) Gloria Allred, I sat there trying to recall who she was and if I knew her," Cain continued. "And I am honestly telling you I can't even recall knowing her back then."
Jacobson said Bialek was alone at the conference.
She paid for a ticket and was not wearing media credentials when she was backstage, convention organizers said.
Bialek describes herself as a Tea Party member, but a number of people involved in local Tea Party groups, such as activist Steven Tucker of Roselle, say they've never heard of her.
"I've been involved in the Tea Party movement for awhile," Chicago Tea Party Patriots spokesman Eric Kohn said. "I don't know any friends who are familiar with her, have met her, or have heard her name before yesterday."
Voting records show that Bialek cast a Republican ballot in the 2008 primary.
But the extent of her involvement appears to end there.
"I'd never even heard her name before this," said Illinois GOP spokesman Jon Blessing, active in Chicago's 42nd ward organization, where Bialek lived for years.
"I've talked to a lot of people I know," Republican strategist Collin Corbett said. "Nobody knows who this is. If she was active in politics she must have done it in her basement as an anonymous commenter on blogs or newspaper articles."