Broadcaster and model Leeann Tweeden said Thursday that Al Franken “forcibly kissed” and groped her during a USO tour in 2006, two years before the Minnesota Democrat’s election to the U.S. Senate — prompting Franken to apologize and call for a Senate ethics investigation into his own actions.
“You knew exactly what you were doing,” Tweeden wrote in a blog post. “You forcibly kissed me without my consent, grabbed my breasts while I was sleeping and had someone take a photo of you doing it, knowing I would see it later and be ashamed.”
The allegations came two days after a stunning hearing in Washington, where lawmakers acknowledged sexual harassment is a pervasive problem on Capitol Hill — and amid mounting sexual misconduct accusations against Alabama Republican Roy Moore, who has brushed off calls from GOP leaders to end his Senate campaign.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the Senate Ethics Committee to review the 11-year-old allegations against Franken, who first issued a brief statement of apology, then later a longer one in which he called for an investigation, saying, “I will gladly cooperate.”
“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 said. “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.”
Tweeden said she accepted Franken’s apology.
“Yes, people make mistakes and, of course, he knew he made a mistake,” she said at a news conference in Los Angeles, where she works as a radio news anchor for KABC. She said she would leave any disciplinary action up to Senate leaders and was not calling for Franken to step down. “That’s up to them. I’m not demanding that.”
[Female legislators recount harassment stories at hearing]
USO tours usually include live performances by celebrity entertainers to boost morale of U.S. service members, and Tweeden said in her blog post that the 2006 trip to the Middle East was her ninth such trip.
At the time, Tweeden was a Fox Sports Network correspondent and fitness model. Franken, a former writer for “Saturday Night Live,” was an Air America radio host just months away from announcing his Senate candidacy.
Tweeden recalled that Franken “had written some skits for the show and brought props and costumes to go along with them. Like many USO shows before and since, the skits were full of sexual innuendo geared toward a young, male audience.”
Franken, she said, “had written a moment when his character comes at me for a ‘kiss’. I suspected what he was after, but I figured I could turn my head at the last minute or put my hand over his mouth, to get more laughs from the crowd.”
Al Franken and Leeann Tweeden perform a skit in front of more than 2,000 U.S. service members during the 2006 USO tour. (PJF Military Collection/Alamy)
But on the day of the show, she wrote, “Franken and I were alone backstage going over our lines one last time. He said to me, ‘We need to rehearse the kiss.’ I laughed and ignored him. Then he said it again. I said something like, ‘Relax Al, this isn’t SNL … we don’t need to rehearse the kiss.’
He continued to insist, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable.
He repeated that actors really need to rehearse everything and that we must practice the kiss. I said ‘okay’ so he would stop badgering me. 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.
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.
In his first statement, Franken said: “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann.” He also acknowledged that he shouldn’t have taken a photo from the tour that Tweeden had included in her blog post.
He later elaborated after many people, including some of his Senate colleagues, called his statement insufficient.
“I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse,” he said. “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.”
On a Thursday episode of the KABC radio show “McIntyre in the Morning,” Tweeden said she wanted to tell the world about the photo a decade ago but was worried about her career. She convinced herself, she said, that “it was not going to be worth the fight.”
“People are going to go, ‘Oh you’re a model. You’ve been on the cover of Playboy, you’re a lingerie model and a swimsuit model and you’re a sportscaster and you’re a girl in Hollywood’ — are they going to believe you?” Tweeden said on the air, shortly after her blog post was published. “Somehow it was going to be my fault. Somehow it was going to come down on me and he was going to get off scot-free.”
Tweeden said she finally decided to share her story because “the tide has turned” — and because she wondered if Franken had done the same thing to others.
“So many people have come out. And I’ve wanted to tell this story because it’s bugged me for so long. It’s made me angry for so long. I’ve been humiliated for so long,” she said. “Now is the time — don’t wait, don’t hold it in … We’ve got to change the culture. We’ve got to change the silence.”
[Leading Senate Democrats call for ethics investigation into Al Franken]
The allegations rocked the Capitol, prompting numerous senators, including more than a dozen Democrats, to call for an ethics investigation.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) condemned her home state colleague’s behavior. Just last week, the Senate had unanimously approved a bill, which Klobuchar co-sponsored, that will mandate sexual harassment training for all senators and their staffs.
“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.”
President Trump ignored shouted questions about Franken and Moore as he entered a meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) announced that the House will adopt a policy change to make anti-harassment training mandatory for all members and staff.
That announcement followed a congressional hearing during which members publicly came to terms with sexual harassment as a pervasive problem on Capitol Hill. Female lawmakers aired tantalizing details, albeit without naming names, of unwanted sexual comments and advances taking place in their midst.
“This is about a member, who is here [in Congress] now. I don’t know who it is, but somebody who I trust told me this situation,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said at the hearing Tuesday.
Harassers have propositioned staff members by asking: “Are you going to be a good girl?” Some have exposed their genitals to victims. Others have grabbed victims by their private parts on the House floor, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said.
“In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now, who serve, who have not been subject to review but have engaged in sexual harassment,” said Speier, who has been pushing for years to make anti-harassment training a requirement.
Lawmakers in recent weeks have come under pressure to improve the workplace culture on the Hill amid reports from multiple news outlets, including The Washington Post, of lewd comments, unwanted sexual advances and other examples of sexual misconduct that have plagued Congress for decades.
More than 1,500 former congressional employees have signed a letter urging Congress to require anti-harassment training and to overhaul the reporting process, which advocates say is stacked against the victim and designed to protect the institution.
Last week, the Senate for the first time in its history required members and their aides to receive anti-harassment training. The Office of Compliance and the Office of House Employment Counsel currently provide training upon request.
[Sen. Al Franken’s effort to play down sexual assault allegation is complicated by his own past comments]
Last month, as sexual assault accusations began to mount against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Franken took to Facebook to applaud the bravery of the women who shared their stories.
“It takes a lot of courage to come forward, and we owe them our thanks,” he wrote. “And as we hear more and more about Mr. Weinstein, it’s important to remember that while his behavior was appalling, it’s far too common.”
On Thursday, Tweeden said sexual harassment and abuse was happening far beyond Hollywood, and encouraged other victims to step forward.
“This is happening in Middle America,” she said. “This is happening for women who work at Chili’s. This is happening for women who work in an office building somewhere in Iowa and Kansas and Florida. This is happening for women who have no power and no say to speak up. I think the tide is turning.”
“The tour wrapped and on Christmas Eve we began the 36-hour trip home to L.A.,” Tweeden wrote. “After two weeks of grueling travel and performing, I was exhausted. When our C-17 cargo plane took off from Afghanistan I immediately fell asleep, even though I was still wearing my flak vest and Kevlar helmet.”
Upon returning to the United States, Tweeden said, she was “looking through the CD of photos we were given by the photographer” when she came across the image. It was not immediately clear who took the photo.
Three years after the trip, Franken was presented with a USO Merit Award to recognize the tours he’d taken overseas to visit troops as well as his visits with wounded soldiers at military hospitals.
In his initial statement Thursday, Franken said: “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann.” He added that the photo “was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”