Bernero brushes off sexual harassment allegations as ‘toxic politics’

Bernero denies groping: ‘If these charges were true, I wouldn’t vote for me.’

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(This story was updated to include additional information at 2:32 p.m.)

FRIDAY, March 5 — Former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is changing his tune on recent sexual harassment allegations, shifting from saying he didn’t remember the alleged incidents to now flatly denying them altogether, labeling the accusations against him as “character assassination.”  

Bernero appeared as a guest on Michael Patrick Shiels “The Big Show” this morning, in which he said he was “damn close” to launching a 2021 mayoral campaign against Mayor Andy Schor.

“And just in time for that, the character assassination has begun,” Bernero told Shiels. “Let me be clear: I’ve never accosted or groped anyone on Washington Avenue or anywhere else against their will. This did not happen. If these charges were true, I wouldn’t vote for me.”

Two former Lansing women accused Bernero of sexual harassment and unwanted touching this week. One told City Pulse that Bernero groped her in downtown Lansing in 2010. Another said Bernero made unwanted sexual phone calls to her in 2004 while he was a state senator.

Bernero said on Tuesday that he didn’t recall the incidents but labeled his alleged behavior as “unacceptable and wrong.” He apologized for "any pain” caused to the women or his family, also noting that he and his wife, Teri, underwent marriage counseling after he left office in 2017.

“I don’t believe that we should be defined by our past mistakes,” Bernero told City Pulse.

Today, he instead suggested the women were liars and chalked their claims up to “toxic politics.”

“It’s disappointing and the timing of it is interesting,” Bernero said, noting that “all victims should be heard, respected and had their day” while also attacking the credibility of their allegations.

“The people of Lansing know who I am. I have a 30-year track record. This sudden turnabout? You know, I have a record of results. Not everyone liked my style. I understand that. And look, I’m a better man today. I’m not running as a perfect man, but I’m a better man.”

Shiels, at one point during today’s show, attempted to uncover the identity of the former Lansing area news anchor who told City Pulse that she fielded at least three unwanted sexual phone calls from Bernero — mostly about her “fantastic” legs and how Bernero wanted to see them. Shiels asked: "You can gleam enough from that. Do you know who she is?"

She was only willing to speak to City Pulse on the condition that she remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. 

In response to questions about those claims, Bernero said he didn’t know the woman’s identity, but also recognized that it’s “entirely possible” that he was “too flirtatious” with women while in office. He also punted a baseless allegation that the other woman's harassment claims were somehow orchestrated through Mayor Andy Schor's campaign, which Schor has since denied.

“I think the truth will win out here,” Bernero told Shiels this morning. “They think that they’re going to scare me out, embarrass me out or push me out of this race. Or better yet: They want to see the return of the angry mayor. They’re hoping they can push my buttons. I’m not angry. I’m resolved. I’m resolved to defend my good name and resolved to get Lansing back on track.”

Meanwhile, several politicians and activists told City Pulse they aren’t sure that Bernero’s mistakes are totally in the past. The overarching takeaway: Nobody seems totally surprised. Bernero doubled down on the comments to City Pulse this afternoon.

"Upon deeper reflection, I am convinced the alleged incident on Washington Avenue did not happen," Bernero said. "I believe women should be heard and respected. I am glad that victims of abuse feel increasingly empowered to speak out. But not every charge is accurate. I cannot stand by guilt by association. I apologize to those who have been offended by my tone, language or style."

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