(Bloomberg) -- Democratic Senator Al Franken apologized and called for an ethics investigation into his own conduct after a radio news anchor said he forcefully kissed and groped her without consent when they were on a U.S. military-sponsored entertainment tour to the Middle East in 2006.
A number of Franken’s fellow Democratic senators condemned his conduct.
"I’m shocked and concerned," said Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "The behavior described is completely unacceptable. Comedy is no excuse for inappropriate conduct, and I believe there should be an ethics investigation." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York backed an ethics investigation in a statement that said, "Sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated."
Leeann Tweeden, who now works for KABC talk radio in Los Angeles, wrote on the station’s website Thursday that Franken kissed her against her wishes and later was photographed mugging for a camera while he appeared to be grabbing her breasts through her flak jacket while she was asleep on a plane returning from the USO tour.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the chamber’s Ethics Committee should review the matter, “as with all credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault.” He added in a statement, “Regardless of party, harassment and assault are completely unacceptable -- in the workplace or anywhere else.”’
“I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences,” Franken, 66, of Minnesota said in a statement. “I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.”
As to the accusation he forcibly kissed Tweeden during a rehearsal, Franken repeated an earlier statement that he remembers part of the incident differently, but again apologized. "There’s no excuse" for the actions depicted in the photograph, which "isn’t funny," he said.
President Donald Trump, who was accused of sexual misconduct by at least 11 women prior to his election and who was caught on tape once bragging about groping women, mocked Franken in a pair of posts on Twitter Thursday night.
"The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps? .....," the president said in his posts. "And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?."
Franken became a senator in 2009 and has been viewed as a potential presidential candidate. He’s the latest high-profile man to face accusations of sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct as increasing numbers of women come forward with allegations after the downfall of movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
The allegations are being made amid a controversy swirling around Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, who faces accusations from multiple women who said he pursued them for dates or sexual contact when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Those accounts have turned what should have been an easy Republican victory in a special election into a potential win for the Democratic candidate.
Republicans sought to capitalize on the accusations against a Democrat. The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a series of press releases calling on Democrats on the ballot in 2018 to return campaign contributions from Franken’s leadership political action committee. Senators targeted included Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, of Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Jon Tester of Montana.
Senate Democrats weren’t defending Franken. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said, "Sexual harassment and groping are never OK. Senator Franken will have to address the allegations.”
Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said in a statement that Franken’s actions were "simply unacceptable" and added, "Women across America should be able to feel safe in their workplace, and they deserve our support when coming forward with allegations of misconduct.”
Franken’s accuser wrote online, "I felt disgusted and violated" after the kiss. She said Franken had written a skit in which his character was supposed to kiss her, and he badgered her into letting him rehearse it backstage while no one was around.
"We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he 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," Tweeden wrote.
She said she pushed him away and told him "if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time." Tweeden said she avoided Franken as much as possible for the rest of the tour, and that he responded with "petty insults."
She said she wasn’t aware of the groping incident until she was looking at photos from the trip after getting home, and said it happened while she was asleep on the plane heading back to the U.S.
"He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep," Tweeden wrote.
She wrote that she had been a TV host, sports broadcaster and model at the time when they were touring to entertain U.S. troops. Franken is a former writer and cast member on NBC TV’s “Saturday Night Live.”
At a televised news conference at her radio station in Los Angeles, Tweeden said she isn’t calling for Franken to resign. "That’s not my place to say that,” she said.
She said she was prompted to go public after Representative Jackie Speier told a House committee hearing about instances of sexual harassment in Congress. Tweeden said she hoped other women outside the world of entertainment and politics will speak up.
“This is happening in middle America, this is happening to women who have no power,” Tweeden said. “I think the tide is turning.”
In 2008, when Franken was running for the Senate, he was criticized for earlier off-color antics such as a ribald Playboy magazine essay about make-believe sex robots.
On Tuesday, Speier said at a House hearing on sexual harassment that she knew of two sexual harassers now serving in Congress, though she didn’t identify them. Asked on MSNBC Thursday whether she had heard of any such accusations against Franken in the past, the California Democrat said, “I have not.”
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