Nation

‘Al Franken kissed and groped me without my consent,’ Tweeden says; senator apologizes

Comedian Al Franken and sports commentator Leeann Tweeden performed a skit in front of more than 2,000 service members during a USO show. Tweeden said Thursday she accepted Franken’s apology.
Comedian Al Franken and sports commentator Leeann Tweeden performed a skit in front of more than 2,000 service members during a USO show. Tweeden said Thursday she accepted Franken’s apology. (patrick Moes/US Army via Getty Images/file 2006)

WASHINGTON — 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 US 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.

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Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, and minority leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, 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.’’

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‘‘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.’’

USO tours usually include live performances by celebrity entertainers to boost morale of US service members, and Tweeden said in her blog post that the 2006 trip to the Middle East was her ninth such trip.

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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.’’

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 ‘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.

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‘‘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.

The image shows Franken looking into a camera, his hands either over or on Tweeden’s chest as she slept.

‘‘The tour wrapped and on Christmas Eve we began the 36-hour trip home to LA,’’ 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 longer statement Thursday, Franken elaborated on his apology for the photo.

‘‘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. ‘‘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.’’

‘‘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.’’

The allegations rocked the Capitol, prompting numerous senators, including more than a dozen Democrats, to call for an ethics investigation.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota, 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.