Politics

Women allege sexual misconduct against North Carolina GOP lawmaker as his biography is under new scrutiny

Allegations of sexual misconduct by Cawthorn, who at age 25 is the youngest member of Congress, have followed him since he launched his run for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. But the claims have gained renewed attention as the freshman congressman’s popularity has steadily increased in some Republican corners following his move earlier this year to Washington, where he has closely aligned himself with some of his far-right colleagues and former President Donald Trump’s lie that the November election was illegitimate.

Cawthorn has repeatedly denied wrong-doing since the allegations first surfaced, and his office pointed CNN to a September 2020 statement from the lawmaker in which he said, “I have never done anything sexually inappropriate in my life.”

The women alleging misconduct against the congressman are former classmates of his at Patrick Henry College in Virginia. Cawthorn attended the private Christian school for a short time in 2016 before dropping out, and it was during that time that the women say he made unwanted advances on them.

“His MO was to take vulnerable women out on these rides with him in the car, and to make advances,” Caitlin Coulter, one of Cawthorn’s former classmates, told CNN in an interview.

Coulter said she was taken on something Cawthorn called a “fun drive,” where he asked about her purity ring and her sexual experiences. She says she felt something was off and shut down the conversation.

“He got really upset. And he whipped the car around and started going back to campus at 70-80 miles an hour on these one-lane roads,” she said. “And it was — it was really scary.”

Coulter’s account was also included in a broader investigation into Cawthorn by The Washington Post, which first reported new details in the North Carolina congressman’s biography over the weekend. The Post story also poked holes in parts of Cawthorn’s recounting of his personal story, including details related to a 2014 car accident.

CNN spoke to two other women who went to school with Cawthorn, both of whom mentioned his invitations on the “fun” drives, and said that turning him down would result in more unwanted attention.

“There was a lot of sexual innuendo,” said Leah Petree, another former student at the school. “It got really uncomfortable walking to and from class. He would yell out, ‘Are you ready to take that fun drive today?'”

“That pestering continued. That attention was not what I wanted,” she said.

In response to the latest allegations, Cawthorn’s office released a statement Monday, saying, “The voters of Western North Carolina responded to these allegations by giving Madison Cawthorn a 12-point victory over his opponent. Rep. Cawthorn is now busy doing the work he was elected to do including helping our economy recover from the pandemic, creating jobs and opportunity, making health care more affordable, protecting our natural environment and defending life and our Second Amendment rights.”

In addition to the claims by the former Patrick Henry students, at least two women have also alleged that Cawthorn had forcibly kissed or touched them years ago, claims he has previously denied. He told CNN last year that he regretted actions he took and apologized to anybody he “made feel uncomfortable.”

“Looking back, I wish I could have changed my actions. If I made somebody feel uncomfortable in a situation, that is never my goal,” he said.

But the allegations from Cawthorn’s time in college were widely known among former students — so much so that in October, more than 150 former students signed onto a letter blasting the then-candidate for his behavior during his stint at the school, which they wrote “was marked by gross misconduct towards our female peers.”

“During his brief time at the college, Cawthorn established a reputation for predatory behavior. His modus operandi was to invite unsuspecting women on ‘joy rides’ in his white Dodge Challenger. Cawthorn would take young women to secluded areas, lock the doors, and proceed to make unwanted sexual advances,” the letter read, noting that women at the school were warned not to be alone with Cawthorn.

The former students urged voters in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District “to seriously reevaluate Madison Cawthorn’s candidacy in light of who he really is,” and called on them to “reject (him) at the ballot box.”

Cawthorn’s biography has also come under sharper scrutiny since the Post report. In a 2017 speech, Cawthorn described a 2014 car accident, in which, he alleged, that a friend, Bradley Ledford, left him for dead. But Ledford, who was driving the car, told the Post as part of their investigation that Cawthorn’s account of the accident was not true.

“That statement he made was false,” Ledford told the Post. “That is not at all what happened. I pulled him out of the car the second that I was able to get out of the car.”

Cawthorn’s parents have undercut his story in their own account and Cawthorn later testified he has no memory of the accident.

Cawthorn had also previously claimed on his campaign website that he was nominated to the prestigious US Naval Academy but his plans were derailed by the accident. In a 2017 deposition obtained by CNN, however, Cawthorn admitted that he had been rejected from the academy before his accident.

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