Franken apologizes after radio personality accuses him of unwanted kissing, groping

Sen. Al Franken issued an extended apology and called for a Senate ethics investigation into his behavior during a 2006 USO tour, when a Los Angeles radio personality said he kissed and groped her without her consent.

Leeann Tweeden published her account of what happened morning on the website of KABC Radio in Los Angeles, setting off a firestorm of criticism and calls for Franken to face a Senate ethics investigation. Condemnation poured in from Franken’s colleagues and his supporters. Franken joined the criticism himself Thursday afternoon.

“I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate,” Franken said his second statement of the day, apologizing but reiterating that he does not remember the incident – a kiss Tweeden said was forced upon her in rehearsal – the same way.

Tweeden wrote a lengthy account of Franken, a Democrat who joined the U.S. Senate in 2009, forcing a kiss on her during a rehearsal for a skit they planned to perform for troops deployed to the Middle East. She also posted a picture of Franken reaching for her breasts while she was asleep.

“I’m still angry at what Al Franken did to me,” she wrote. “Every time I hear his voice or see his face, I am angry. I am angry that I did his stupid skit for the rest of that tour. I am angry that I didn’t call him out in front of everyone when I had the microphone in my hand every night after that. I wanted to. But I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was there to entertain the troops and make sure they forgot about where they were for a few hours. Someday, I thought to myself, I would tell my story.”

Franken, who in recent weeks had repeatedly cheered the accounts of other women in the #MeToo movement who stepped forward to share stories about harassment, issued a detailed apology.

“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.”

Franken continued: “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 … 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.”

The allegations prompted colleagues on both sides of the aisle to call for an investigation.

Franken’s fellow Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote: “This should not have happened to Leeann Tweeden. I strongly condemn this behavior and the Senate Ethics Committee must open an investigation. This is another example of why we need to change work environments and reporting practices across the nation, including in Congress.”

“Sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a statement. “I hope and expect that the Ethics Committee will fully investigate this troubling incident, as they should with any credible allegation of sexual harassment.”

Reporters crowded around senators heading to the Senate floor to vote Thursday afternoon, shouting questions about Franken.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a Senate investigation into the incident, which occurred before Franken joined the U.S. Senate. Prior to his political career, Franken was well-known as a longtime performer on “Saturday Night Live” and for a series of satirical books about politics.

“As with all credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault, I believe the Ethics Committee should review the matter,” McConnell said. “I hope the Democratic leader will join me on this. Regardless of party, harassment and assault are completely unacceptable – in the workplace or anywhere else.”

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a former senator himself, echoed the call for an ethics investigation.

“I was shocked to hear these reports this morning,” he said in a statement. “I will defer to the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee to investigate and act on this matter. I know from serving in the Senate that the Committee has a well-established and highly-respected process for reviewing situations like this and making the right decisions.”

Within hours of Tweeden going public, calls for Franken to resign from the Senate were already surfacing. Voices of Conservative Women, a Minnesota group, posted a petition on the website calling on Franken to step down. “Sexual harassment and assault is never funny and never acceptable,” reads the group’s online petition.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee was circulating press releases, calling on Democrats to return money they had received from Franken, a prolific fundraiser with his own political action committee. As of Nov. 6, Franken’s Midwest Values Pac had distributed $115,000 to 16 Democratic Senate candidates and $25,500 to nine Democratic House candidates, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.

Tweeden is the latest woman to come forward publicly with a story of sexual harassment against a powerful man, as similar allegations surface against other politicians at the state and national level, as well as a series of Hollywood figures.

Tweeden spoke about the allegations on her radio show Thursday morning. She said the incident still infuriates her: the memory of wanting to get to a bathroom to “rinse the taste of him out of my mouth,” then the shock of returning home to see the photo of herself, asleep, and Franken mugging for the camera and miming a pair of groping hands over her chest.

She said she was inspired to tell her story after U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier shared an account this week of being sexually harassed during her career on Capitol Hill, including being forcibly kissed by a supervisor when she was a congressional staffer.

Sexual Harassment Franken
In this image provided by the U.S. Army, then-comedian Al Franken and sports commentator Leeann Tweeden perform a comic skit at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq, on Dec. 16, 2006, during the USO Sergeant Major of the Army's 2006 Hope and Freedom Tour. Creighton Holub U.S. Army via AP

A former model, Tweeden was volunteering on her ninth USO tour and her role, she said, was to introduce the entertainers, including musical acts and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Franken, the headlining comedy act, pitched the idea of having her join him in acting out a humorous skit – one that included a kiss.

On the day of the show, she said, the two were alone backstage and Franken suggested they rehearse the kiss. She said she tried to laugh it off, but he “continued to insist, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable.” Eventually, she said she agreed.

“(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 wrote. “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. 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.”

After years on “Saturday Night Live” followed by a nationally syndicated radio show, Franken parlayed his celebrity into a political career in Minnesota, where he grew up and graduated from high school. He was first elected in 2008, after a bruising campaign against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman that ended with the two separated by only a few hundred votes. A lengthy recount and legal battle ensued, with Franken finally joining the Senate in 2009.

Franken had emerged in recent months as a high-profile critic of the administration of President Donald Trump, aggressively questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other administration officials. He also publicly expressed support in recent weeks for women coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment or other untoward behavior by powerful men – a movement identified by the Twitter hashtag #MeToo on social media.

“Thx to courageous ppl who’ve shared #MeToo stories,” Franken tweeted on Oct. 23.

(Star Tribune reporter Jim Spencer contributed to this story.)

Related stories from Miami Herald