LINCOLN — Time after time, Charles Herbster worked the crowds as he attended events, either as a candidate for Nebraska governor, a significant Republican donor or a beauty pageant judge.
He would go up to a group and introduce himself. Often wearing his signature cowboy hat and suit, he would extend a handshake to the men. But when young women reached out for a handshake, as well, on at least several occasions he pulled them into an embrace instead.
Herbster, the CEO of Conklin Co. and now a frontrunner in the 2022 GOP primary race, sometimes went further, according to eight women who spoke with the Nebraska Examiner.
During an event in 2019, for example, Republican State Sen. Julie Slama confirmed that as she walked by Herbster, he reached up her skirt, without her consent, and touched her inappropriately. The incident happened in the middle of a crowded ballroom at the Douglas County Republican Party’s annual Elephant Remembers dinner.
At the time, Slama had been recently appointed to the District 1 legislative seat representing southeast Nebraska. Herbster owns a farm and a house in the district.
Another person attending the 2019 event saw Herbster reach up Slama’s skirt and had told the Examiner about it. That witness and two others said they saw Herbster grope another young woman on her buttocks at the same event.
When the Examiner asked Slama on Monday if the two incidents at the event had been described accurately, and whether Herbster had touched her under her skirt, Slama said: “Yes, confirmed,” but declined to discuss the incidents further.
Six women, including the woman Slama saw being groped at the Elephant Remembers dinner, told the Nebraska Examiner that Herbster touched them inappropriately when they were saying hello or goodbye to him, or when they were posing for a photograph by his side.
The women said Herbster groped them on their buttocks, outside of their clothes, during political events or beauty pageants. Each woman said she was grabbed, not inadvertently grazed, by Herbster.
A seventh woman said Herbster once cornered her privately and kissed her forcibly.
All the incidents occurred between 2017 and this year, according to those involved. The women ranged in age from their late teens to mid-20s at the time of the incidents.
Herbster’s campaign manager, Ellen Keast, in a statement issued Wednesday evening, said Herbster denied the women’s allegations “unequivocally.” Keast said that “this is a political hit-piece built on 100% false and baseless claims.” Keast blamed the “political establishment” for “smearing and trying to destroy him with lies.”
“Charles W. Herbster has a lifetime record of empowering women to lead,” Keast said in her statement. “His company, farm, and campaign are all run by women. Despite leading hundreds of employees, not once has his reputation been attacked in this disgusting manner.”
Keast, who said her family has known Herbster for nearly a decade, said she had never experienced anything like the women described. “Never,” she said. “He’s an honest, respectful man.”
Concerned about careers
All of the women except Slama spoke to the Examiner on the condition that their names be withheld. The Nebraska Examiner grants anonymity to those alleging sexual assault, unless they consent to be named.
Several of the women said they feared Herbster’s wealth and power. Three said they were concerned about their careers if they reported the behavior. Three worried about the reaction of their parents and churches.
Being a conservative Republican woman in politics, you just expect to be treated with respect. To be treated in that way in a public event, in front of everyone, just to prove, I believe, that he could get away with it, and not having recourse, it’s terrifying.
– One of the women making an allegation
Two of the women said they were still considering filing a police report.
Each of the women said she had shown an interest in GOP politics, conservative causes or beauty pageants when she met Herbster. All denied political motivations in talking about Herbster’s actions.
“Being a conservative Republican woman in politics, you just expect to be treated with respect. To be treated in that way in a public event, in front of everyone, just to prove, I believe, that he could get away with it, and not having recourse, it’s terrifying,” one woman said.
“I’m scared for any young women that he would be dealing with in the future. Don’t send your daughters to work for this guy,” she said.
The Nebraska Examiner corroborated six of the women’s accounts with at least one witness to each incident. The other two women told at least one person about the incident on the same day it occurred. Each witness and confidant confirmed the women’s description of what happened.
One witness said he saw Herbster grope a woman during a large conservative gathering and was appalled. The witness, a combat veteran, asked the woman if she wanted him to intervene. She asked him to restrain himself because she didn’t want to cause a scene.
A witness to a different incident showed the Examiner a photograph of a young woman posing with a group after meeting Herbster. Herbster’s arm is stretched behind the woman, just below her waist. Both the woman and the witness have confirmed that Herbster was grabbing the woman’s buttocks at the time.
A few of the women said Herbster placed himself in their exit path after events, making it difficult to leave without talking to him. One called it “creepy and controlling.”
Under state law, touching a person inappropriately without consent on the outside of their clothes constitutes third-degree sexual assault. If the person was injured, it’s second-degree sex assault. Any penetration constitutes first-degree sexual assault.
1 in 6 American women
National statistics indicate that 1 out of 6 American women have been sexually assaulted. Only 15% of sexual assaults occur in public places, according to the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, or RAINN, citing federal crime data.
Power and the drive for power spur much of the sexual violence that takes place, said Christon MacTaggart, executive director of the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Many sexual assault survivors face prolonged trauma, including PTSD, anxiety, depression and isolation, whether or not they access services like counseling, MacTaggart said. But those who seek help and have support see better outcomes, she said.
Survivors endure economic impacts, too, she said, ranging from sick days and missed work to the loss of opportunities to advance in their careers, often because they’re dealing with trauma.
“From what I’ve seen, it’s not always so much about how severe the degree of sexual violence was,” MacTaggart said. “What I would say is, to all survivors, we see you and we believe you.
“It takes great courage to come forward with allegations of sexual violence all the time, but especially against someone who is in a position of power.”
Three of the women interviewed by the Examiner said they no longer follow politics because of what happened. Two said they have sought counseling. Two others said they just want to forget about what happened. One said she now carries a gun to protect herself.
Deb Portz, a campaign volunteer and donor who is part of the Herbster for Women group, often defends him when people attack him politically on the campaign’s Facebook page. When someone alleged on the page that Herbster had improperly touched a woman, she suggested the candidate was a “hugger” and that the commenter was misrepresenting what he saw.
Thibodeau saw no groping
Herbster’s former running mate, Theresa Thibodeau, who is now running against him in the GOP contest, expressed disgust at the allegations.
Thibodeau said she had not been aware of allegations about Herbster, nor had she seen him grope anybody. She helped the campaign for much of 2021.
“I would have come out publicly immediately,” said Thibodeau, a former state senator. “Because no woman should ever be made to feel that way or be too scared to come forward.”
She ended her involvement with his campaign in July, saying he was poorly prepared to be governor and would not put in the work she thought he needed.
She said she was troubled, however, by an episode after she left. Politico reported Sept. 29 that Herbster was with Corey Lewandowski during a Sept. 26 charity fundraiser in Las Vegas when an Idaho GOP donor’s wife alleged that Lewandowski made lewd, unwanted advances toward her. Herbster issued a statement later saying he had asked Lewandowski to “step back” from his role as a senior adviser to Herbster’s campaign.
Thibodeau told the Examiner she was troubled because Herbster continued to involve Lewandowski — who was a campaign manager for former President Donald Trump — in campaign decisions as a confidant and consultant. Several former Herbster campaign staffers confirmed Lewandowski’s continued involvement.
Another incident that made Thibodeau question Herbster’s treatment of women: She said Herbster told her to stay quiet during a Future Farmers of America meeting celebrating women in agriculture. She said she felt he often preferred women to be “seen and not heard.”
Misconduct is bipartisan
Political sexual misconduct is sadly bipartisan, said Allison Bitterman, a former campaign consultant for Democrats. She quit her role helping 2020 U.S. Senate candidate Chris Janicek, a Democrat, raise campaign funds after Janicek sent “sexually inappropriate” texts to her and other staffers.
Candidates, campaigns and major political parties could do more to protect victims of sexual harassment and assault by adopting policies that hold people accountable, she said.
State and local leaders could help, too, by extending Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protections to people working for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, she said.
“The reputation and character of these candidates behaving in this grotesque manner isn’t secretive,” Bitterman said. “The parties … continue to remain silent until this (bad behavior by candidates or staff) happens.”
Victims of sexual violence can contact the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence to access a statewide network of service providers online, or by phone at (402) 476-6256.