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Minnesota's Franken faces sexual misconduct allegations

Sexual misconduct from men in powerful positions is a societal problem, not a partisan problem.
Senator Al Franken speaks to students at the University of Minnesota, Sept. 3, 2014. (Photo by Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA)
Senator Al Franken speaks to students at the University of Minnesota, Sept. 3, 2014.

Sexual misconduct from men in powerful positions is a societal problem, not a partisan problem.

A radio news anchor on Thursday accused Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of forcibly kissing and groping her a decade ago when they were overseas entertaining U.S. troops.Leeann Tweeden, a radio news anchor with KABC in Los Angeles, said she met Franken in December 2006 before he became a lawmaker at a USO show to perform for service members that included a skit he wrote that featured a kiss between the two.

As Tweeden described it in a written piece published this morning, Franken, two years before launching his U.S. Senate bid, insisted on rehearsing a kiss before a USO show, to the point that she became uncomfortable. When she reluctantly agreed to the rehearsal, Tweeden alleges that Franken "came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth."

She later found a photograph, which is now publicly available, of Franken with his hands on her breasts while she was sleeping aboard the military airplane.

"I couldn't believe it. He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep. I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated. How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it's funny?" she said.

In a written statement also released this morning, the Minnesota Democrat said through his spokesperson, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it."

If Franken is under the impression that this three-sentence statement is a sufficient response, he's going to be disappointed.

Some of his Democratic colleagues have already called for him to explain himself in far more detail, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the Senate Ethics Committee should begin an investigation into the matter.

If the controversy ends Franken's career and he resigns -- a distinct possibility, given the nature of the controversy, the credibility of the allegations, and the photograph -- Minnesota's Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, would appointment someone to fill the vacancy. There would be a special election next year in which voters would elect a senator to fill the remainder of Franken's term, which ends in 2020.

It would also mean that Minnesota would be home to two simultaneous U.S. Senate races next year: incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) is seeking re-election next year.

In recent months, the number of men from a variety of fields and industries accused of sexual misconduct towards women has steadily grown, but Franken is the first recent example of a sitting member of Congress to make unwanted sexual advances. That said, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told a House panel this week that she's aware of two current members of Congress – one Democrat and one Republican – who have engaged in sexual harassment during their service on Capitol Hill.

Update: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has also endorsed calls for an Ethics Committee investigation. Franken, meanwhile, has released a longer statement in response to the controversy:

"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. There's more I want to say, but the first and most important thing -- and if it's the only thing you care to hear, that's fine -- is: I'm sorry.

"I respect women. I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.

"But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us -- including and especially men who respect women -- have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.

"For instance, that picture. I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. There's no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it -- women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.

"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. 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.

"While I don't remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women's experiences.

"I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.

"And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them."