WASHINGTON — A growing national outcry over sexual harassment reached the Senate on Thursday, when a radio newscaster accused Al Franken, D-Minn., of kissing and groping her without consent during a 2006 USO tour of the Middle East before he took public office.
Franken, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, almost immediately released an apology to the newscaster, Leeann Tweeden, who said that Franken forcibly kissed her during a rehearsal and groped her for a photo as she slept. After initially apologizing without fully acknowledging her all of her accusations, he then released another lengthier, more contrite statement that contested nothing.
“The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women,” Franken wrote.
“I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t,” he continued. “And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.”
The storm that enveloped Franken in a matter of hours marked a merger of sorts between the harassment scandals darkening the political world and the grave misconduct marring the entertainment industry. Republicans are still struggling to resolve their quandary with Roy S. Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls.
But the realm of comedy, which spawned the charges against Louis C.K., has been particularly suspect, and Franken, who emerged from Saturday Night Live as a nationally known celebrity, appeared to acknowledge that.
“Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive,” he wrote. “But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all. It’s the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to terms with that.”
The swift, unsparing response came from Republicans and Democrats alike. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate leaders, wasted no time before forwarding the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee — a move supported by Democrats, including Franken. Lawmakers did stop short of meting out a punishment on a fellow senator, and it appeared that Franken would be able to weather the disclosure.
“As with all credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault, I believe the Ethics Committee should review the matter,” McConnell said in a statement. “Regardless of party, harassment and assault are completely unacceptable — in the workplace or anywhere else.”
Democrats gave Franken no quarter.
“This is unacceptable behavior and extremely disappointing. I am glad Al came out and apologized, but that doesn’t reverse what he’s done or end the matter. I support an ethics committee investigation into these accusations and I hope this latest example of the deep problems on this front spurs continued action to address it,” said Patty Murray of Washington, one of the most senior Democratic women in the Senate.
Tweeden published a first-person account of the incident on KABC Radio in Los Angeles on Thursday. She wrote that it occurred in December 2006, not long before Christmas, when she was a performer for the tour alongside Franken, then a well-known comedian. Tweeden was then a Fox Sports Network correspondent and model.
She also presented evidence, including a photograph of Franken, his head turned toward the camera, with his hands placed over Tweeden’s breasts as she slept.
According to Tweeden’s account, Franken wrote a bawdy script that included a kiss for the two to perform onstage. When it came time to rehearse the skit, she wrote, Franken insisted on kissing despite her protestations.
“I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time,” Tweeden wrote. “I walked away. All I could think about was getting to a bathroom as fast as possible to rinse the taste of him out of my mouth.”
“I felt disgusted and violated,” she added.
Tweeden said that no one else witnessed the kiss, and she did not tell the tour’s organizers. She said Franken retaliated against her with insults and, she learned after the trip ended, the compromising photograph.
Tweeden said the photograph was taken while she was asleep on a flight back to the United States from Afghanistan and that she saw it only later, after the trip ended.
“I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated,” she wrote. “How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?”
Speaking on air on KABC Thursday morning, Tweeden, a former model, said that women were too often blamed for provoking male aggression based on their looks or clothing. She told reporters later that she would accept Franken’s apology.
“The apology? Sure. I accept it,” she said. “People make mistakes.”
Asked if she would call on Franken to step down, Tweeden said no, barring the emergence of new accusations.
“That’s not my place,” she said.
Tweeden wrote that she had been compelled to share the story after an on-air conversation with Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has been a leading voice sounding alarms about sexual harassment on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.
“I want to have the same effect on them that Congresswoman Jackie Speier had on me,” Tweeden wrote. “I want them, and all the other victims of sexual assault, to be able to speak out immediately, and not keep their stories — and their anger — locked up inside for years, or decades.”
Speier and others have labored to force Congress to begin grappling with sexual aggression that has long been a part of work life on Capitol Hill. She testified at a House hearing on the topic on Tuesday that helped draw increased scrutiny of the sort that has already begun to take place in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and newsrooms in New York and Washington.
Even before the accusations against Franken, lawmakers in both the Senate and House had moved to begin mandatory anti-harassment training for all Capitol Hill employees and interns.
Tweeden’s story came one day after Speier and four other lawmakers, including Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Penn., and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, introduced legislation to overhaul the way sexual harassment and assault are reported in Congress.
Congressional aides, attorneys and lobbyists say the existing system is convoluted, and has long been stacked against those wishing to speak out against an abuser: The current process requires nondisclosure agreements and can take up to six months before a formal complaint is filed.
The proposed legislation would make anonymity optional, as well as require lawmakers to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for paying out any settlements to victims.
While his fellow senators rushed to rebuke him, Franken hunkered down out of sight, skipping four votes in the Senate and the Democrats’ regularly scheduled luncheon.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Franken’s fellow Minnesota Democrat, condemned his actions and like other senators called for an Ethics Committee query.
“This should not have happened to Leeann Tweeden,” Klobuchar said. “This is another example of why we need to change work environments and reporting practices across the nation, including in Congress.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the Ethics Committee’s chairman, cited committee rules in saying that he could not comment on a prospective investigation.
Republicans, anxious to talk about sexual accusations other than Moore’s, tried to turn the allegations to their political favor. The campaign committees of Republican Senate and House candidates sent out a blizzard of news releases demanding that Democrats denounce Franken and return campaign contributions that he had made.
Lisbeth Kaufman, who worked for Franken during his first term while she was in her mid-20s, said Franken never behaved inappropriately in the office to her knowledge, and recalled him as a focused and intelligent lawmaker.
“There are predators on the Hill for sure,” Kaufman, 31, said in an interview. “And there are so many terrible stories. I’ve heard them myself. I’ve never heard such stories about Sen. Franken.”