At Capitol, Franken apologizes and sees long fight for trust

Published 9:11 pm Monday, November 27, 2017

WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken apologized Monday to voters, aides and “everyone who has counted on me to be a champion for women” as the Minnesota Democrat fought to bolster his support with his first Capitol public appearance since being drawn into a wave of sexual harassment accusations buffeting Congress.

Franken spoke as lawmakers began returning from an extraordinary weeklong Thanksgiving break that saw sexually tinged problems engulf two other legislators as well: Reps. John Conyers, D-Michigan, and Joe Barton, R-Texas. Those revelations were on top of allegations that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and sought romantic relationships with other teenagers when he was in his 30s four decades ago, which he has denied.

With harassment charges recently bringing down big names in the worlds of entertainment and journalism, Congress was adding widespread complaints about how it handles such incidents to its pile of year-end work.

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In a brief appearance before reporters, Franken stopped short of specifying how his memory differs from four women’s accounts of separate incidents in which he allegedly initiated improper sexual contact. He said he recalls “differently” one woman’s allegation that he forcibly kissed her but provided no detail, and said he doesn’t remember three other times women assert he grabbed their buttocks, citing “tens of thousands” of people he meets annually.

“But I feel that you have to respect, you know, women’s experience,” he said.

Franken said he will cooperate with an Ethics Committee investigation of his behavior. He said it will take “a long time for me to regain people’s trust” and said he hoped to begin that process by returning to work.

“I want to be someone who adds something to this conversation,” said Franken, a longtime liberal.

The House planned to vote Wednesday on a resolution requiring lawmakers and staff to annually complete anti-harassment training. Its chief sponsors included Reps. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has said she was sexually assaulted by a male chief of staff when she was a House aide decades ago. The Senate approved a similar measure earlier this month.

With many lawmakers — particularly women — pushing for more, the House Administration Committee planned a hearing next week on how to strengthen Congress’ processing of harassment allegations. Under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, complaints have been sent to an obscure Office of Compliance, which requires a lengthy counseling and mediation period and has allowed virtually no public disclosure of cases.

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., said the hearing will look at “ways to create a respectful reporting and settlement process.” Comstock, who is also on that panel, said members are discussing whether taxpayer funds should be spent on settling harassment suits and if people can be released from existing nondisclosure agreements so they can reveal their experiences.

Congress’ procedures drew intensified fire after a report last week by the news website BuzzFeed that Conyers’ office paid a woman more than $27,000 under a confidentiality agreement to settle a complaint in 2015 that she was fired from his Washington staff because she rejected his sexual advances. The money came from taxpayers, not Conyers himself.

Conyers, 88, the House’s current longest-serving member, has relinquished his post as top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and the House Ethics Committee is reviewing the case. He’s denied the allegations.

Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have introduced legislation requiring that lawmakers who settle harassment claims with the Office of Compliance repay the Treasury for the settlement, and eliminating mandatory nondisclosure agreements as a condition for entering mediation.

The legislation requires that the Office of Compliance publish individual settlement amounts, as well as the names of employing offices that have settled cases. Last week, the office said it has paid more than $17 million in 264 cases over the last 20 years to resolve claims of sexual harassment, overtime pay disputes and other congressional workplace violations, but provided no further detail.

Barton, a 32-year House veteran, has acknowledged sharing a nude photo of himself with an unidentified lover that was spread online. He’s accused her of threatening to make it public when he ended the relationship.

The woman told The Washington Post that she did not put it online and said the congressman sought to intimidate her by threatening to go to the authorities if she exposed his conduct. Barton, 68, said he was separated from his second wife at the time and has apologized for not using “better judgment.”

Leeann Tweeden, now a Los Angeles radio news anchor, has said that Franken forcibly kissed her when the two were on a USO tour and that he took a sexually suggestive photo while she was sleeping in 2006, before he entered the Senate. Three other women allege Franken grabbed their buttocks while posing with them for photos during separate campaign events in 2007, 2008 and 2010.