Minnesota Senator Al Franken has been accused of groping radio/TV host and model Leeann Tweeden without her consent during a USO Tour in December 2006. At the time, Franken had yet to run for public office and was on the tour as a comedian.
Tweeden detailed her experience with Franken in a post for the Los Angeles radio station KABC. She claimed Franken forcibly kissed her while they rehearsed a sketch, and later, on the flight back from Afghanistan, grabbed her chest while she slept. A photo of the alleged latter incident was included in Tweeden's post.
Tweeden offered a detailed account of the 2006 trip, which marked her ninth USO Tour. While her usual role was to emcee the show and introduce performers, she said she agreed to participate in a sketch Franken had written with her in mind. Tweeden noted that she wasn't surprised to find Franken's skits were "full of sexual innuendo geared toward a young, male audience." But when she saw that her skit involved a kiss, she figured she "could turn my head at the last minute, or put my hand over his mouth, to get more laughs from the crowd."
The day of the show, Tweeden said she and Franken were running lines backstage when the comedian said they needed to rehearse the kiss as well. While Tweeden said that didn't seem necessary, she claimed Franken continued to badger her until finally she agreed.
"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," she claimed. "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."
Onstage, Tweeden said she performed the skit as written but turned her head so that Franken couldn't kiss her on the lips. Tweeden said she did not report Franken's alleged behavior backstage because she did not want to cause any trouble, though she did speak with several others on the tour about the comedian's behavior. Throughout the rest of the tour, Tweeden continued to perform Franken's skit, but otherwise tried to avoid him. In return, she said, she received "petty insults, including drawing devil horns on at least one of the headshots I was autographing for the troops."
Tweeden said the USO Tour wrapped Christmas Eve and soon after they boarded a C-17 cargo plane to fly back to the United States, she fell asleep. After she got home, she was looking through a CD of photographs when she found one of Franken grabbing her chest while she slept.
"He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep," Tweeden alleged. "I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated. How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?"
Franken responded to the allegations in a statement to Rolling Stone. "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann," he wrote. "As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for an ethics review into Franken's alleged behavior, saying, "As with all credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault, I believe the Ethics Committee should review the matter. I hope the Democratic Leader will join me on this. Regardless of party, harassment and assault are completely unacceptable – in the workplace or anywhere else."
While Tweeden said she wanted to go public with her accusations against Franken, she said she worried about the potential backlash and the damage it might do to her career as a broadcaster. Ten years later, Tweeden is the news anchor for KABC's McIntyre in the Morning, and she said she was inspired to tell her story after California Congresswoman Jackie Speier spoke on her show about being sexually assaulted while she was a Congressional aide.
Addressing Franken, Tweeden wrote, "You knew exactly what you were doing. 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."
Tweeden's accusations against Franken come as women continue to share their stories of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault at the hands of men in major positions of power. The ongoing wave began with the revelations against Harvey Weinstein – and Franken was one of many politicians to speak out against the disgraced film executive and praise the women coming forward. Saying he was dismayed by the reasons many women stay silent rather than come forward, Franken called for reforms to arbitration laws.
Arbitration laws, Franken wrote on Facebook, "prevent people who experience workplace harassment from going to court. Instead, they are forced into arbitration, a process that heavily favors the employer, often denying them justice after they’ve been harassed at work. That’s why I’ve been working to pass the Arbitration Fairness Act—so that people in the workplace wouldn’t have to sign away their rights to have their day in court when they take a job."