'Nothing Funny About It': Sen. Al Franken Accused of Unwanted Groping During ISO Tour in 2006
Democratic senator from Minnesota, a former comedian, latest powerful man to be called out for past sexual behavior
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is facing accusations of unwanted sexual advances after a female colleague said she was kissed "without [her] consent" and later groped by the comedian-turned-lawmaker while on a USO Tour entertaining U.S. troops overseas in 2006.
In an online posting Thursday morning, journalist Leeann Tweeden, who started her career as a model and now works as a local newscaster in Los Angeles, said "it's time to tell my story," and explained during a flight leaving Afghanistan how Franken had "groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep."
In her written account of the experience, Tweeden describes how Franken, as headliner and writer of the touring show, had the ability to write scripts for performances which ultimately included one in which he would attempt to kiss Tweeden on stage. From her post:
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.
On the day of the show 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 ‘OK’ 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.
Tweeden says she did not tell anyone in the show about the incident at the time, but avoided Franken as best she could for the remainder of the tour. Subsequently, however, as the group was on a flight leaving Afghanistan and headed back to the U.S., she says she later was shown a photograph in which, while she slept, Franken appears to mimick the gesture of grabbing her breasts. "I couldn't believe it," Tweeden writes. "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?"
In a statement sent to The Hill, Franken said he does not remember the incident Tweeden describes in the same way but acknowledged the photo "wasn't" funny.
"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," Franken said.
Tweeden explains that she deliberated for a long time about how to come forward. "While debating whether or not to go public," she writes, "I even thought to myself, so much worse has happened to so many others, maybe my story isn't worth telling? But my story is worth telling."
Ultimately, she says she came forward because—inspired by other women who have shared their stories of assault and harassment and being afraid to speak—she wants the fear of others to break and the "silence to be over forever."
Update (2:07 PM ET): Franken releases second statement. Says "I'm sorry" for behavior towards Leeann Tweeden, says women accusers must be listened to and believed, and welcomes Senate ethics investigation into allegations against him
Franken's full statement follows:
“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.”