Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump meets supporters organizing voter registration and support for his campaign just before a rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 24, 2016. (Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

Trump accused of kissing ex-campaign staffer without consent in 2016, suit claims

PALM BEACH, Fla. — A staffer on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Trump of kissing her without her consent before a 2016 Florida rally _ a claim denied as “absurd” by the White House on Monday.

The lawsuit filed by Alva Johnson in U.S. District Court in Tampa claims that Trump, at a gathering with other campaign personnel before an Aug. 24, 2016, Tampa rally, “grasped her hand and did not let go” and tried to kiss her on the mouth before Johnson turned her head and the kiss landed on the corner of her mouth. The incident left Johnson, a 43-year-old mother of four from Alabama, “confused and humiliated” at the time, her lawsuit says, and she “continues to suffer emotional distress, psychological trauma, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of dignity, invasion of privacy and other damages.”

Johnson, a black woman, also claims in the lawsuit that she was underpaid because of her race and gender and seeks damages for herself and “all others similarly situated.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied Johnson’s claims.

“This accusation is absurd on its face. This never happened and is directly contradicted by multiple highly credible eyewitness accounts,” Sanders said.

Johnson’s lawsuit says former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was among those who witnessed the incident. Bondi told The Washington Post, which first reported on Johnson’s lawsuit, that she does not remember any inappropriate behavior by Trump.

“Do I recall seeing anything inappropriate? One hundred percent no,” Bondi told The Washington Post. “I’m a prosecutor, and if I saw something inappropriate, I would have said something.”

Trump appeared at a rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa on Aug. 24, 2016 — his first Florida appearance after a shakeup in which campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigned and Kellyanne Conway took over as campaign manager. Before the rally, Trump visited one of the recreational vehicles his campaign used as mobile offices in Florida. The incident alleged by Johnson occurred in the RV with Bondi and several others present, her lawsuit says.

The Tampa rally came about six weeks before the Oct. 7, 2016, release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of a 2005 conversation in which Trump boasted of kissing and groping women without asking them because “when you’re a star they let you do it.” After the tape, several women publicly accused Trump of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

In her lawsuit, Johnson said that when she heard the “Access Hollywood” tape she “realized that what Defendant Donald Trump had done to her was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of predatory behavior towards women.”

In Palm Beach County the following week to prepare for an Oct. 13 Trump rally at the South Florida Fairgrounds, Johnson said she contacted an attorney “to discuss her legal options.” Fort Lauderdale-based attorney Adam D. Horowitz told The Palm Beach Post that he met with Johnson at a Starbucks in Boca Raton and found her claims “credible,” but ultimately decided not to take her case.

In an Oct. 28, 2016, text message that Johnson shared with The Washington Post, Horowitz said he believed Johnson but “(r)ight now my practice simply cannot dive into something like that which would be so time-consuming with an uncertain outcome.”

The lead attorney for the lawsuit Johnson filed Monday is Hassan Zavareei of Washington, D.C., with attorneys from Florida and Oakland, Calif., also listed.

The Washington Post reported that Johnson’s father and half sister briefly obtained a temporary restraining order against Johnson in a 2006 dispute in Georgia in which they accused Johnson of calling a younger sibling’s school and falsely claiming that the sibling was using drugs. The family members withdrew the petitions less than three weeks later, the paper reported.

Zavareei, reached Monday, said Johnson denied the 2006 accusation and is no longer in a dispute with the family members.

“It was a private family matter that was resolved right away,” Zavareei said of the 2006 matter. “The family is now fully supportive of Alva. It’s been resolved.”

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