Garrison Keillor described several sexually suggestive emails he exchanged with a former researcher who accused him of sexual misconduct as "romantic writing" that never resulted in a physical relationship, and the radio host rejected the idea that because he was her boss — and the driving force of a hugely popular radio program — it could be sexual harassment.
The woman responded, via her attorney, that Keillor's power over her job made her afraid to say no to him.
In one of his first extended interviews since Minnesota Public Radio cut ties over the allegations against the former A Prairie Home Companion host in November, Keillor said he never had a sexual relationship with the woman, a freelance contributor to the show at the time.
"No button was unbuttoned and no zipper was unzipped," Keillor told The Associated Press. "I never kissed her. ... This was a flirtation between two writers that took place in writing."
Keillor also downplayed his power over the woman by portraying himself as uninvolved in the mundane operations of the radio show he created nearly a half-century ago and built into a powerhouse that attracted millions of listeners nationwide each Saturday evening, spun off assorted businesses and tours, and inspired a movie.
"I was not really the boss around Prairie Home Companion," Keillor said. "I was a writer sitting in a dim office at a typewriter, back in the old days." He also said: "I had no control over her whatsoever. She worked at home."
The woman said in an emailed response through her attorney that Keillor "had the power to provide or take away job assignments and opportunities. He also acknowledged several times that power imbalance between us, recognizing how his conduct could be offensive when it was coming from the person for whom I work."
She also said she wasn't interested in anything but a "collegial" relationship with Keillor.
"He was my mentor and employer," she said. "As such, he had power over me. Every time I said 'no' or tried to avoid him I feared I was saying 'no' to my future."
The Associated Press does not typically name alleged victims of sexual harassment unless they have chosen to go public.
MPR spokeswoman Angie Andresen said the station stood by its handling of the claims against Keillor. In January, the company said the woman had accused Keillor of dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents over several years, including requests for sexual contact and explicit sexual communications and touching.
"Our decision was not based on flirtations or fantasies, but based on facts confirming unacceptable behavior in the workplace by a person in a position of power over someone who worked for him," Andresen said by email.
Kelly Marinelli, founder of Solve HR Inc., a human resources consulting company in Colorado, said even when a relationship seems reciprocal, there could be problems when one person is the boss.
"In a situation where someone has power over another person and whether or not they continue to receive work ... it's very difficult for that to be a real mutual, consensual relationship," she said.
AP views emails
Before the interview, Keillor's attorneys allowed the AP to view hundreds of emails between Keillor and the woman dating from 2004 to 2017, on condition that they could be described but not quoted directly.
Some were work-related, including details from her research and Keillor's critiques. But many were personal, sharing details about their families and emotional struggles from their home email accounts, and some were overtly sexual.
The tone began changing in 2013, as the pair began sharing more about their lives and signing off by saying they loved and missed each other. By 2014 and 2015, the emails became more amorous. They both shared wishes or fantasies of being intimate, sometimes in detail. In one July 20, 2015, email, Keillor wrote of his desire to reach into the woman's blouse and hold her breast in his hand. Keillor was married at the time and still is.
"I agree that there are adolescent passages in there, but there were some by her and some by me," Keillor told the AP.
"We were two writers and we wrote back and forth and sometimes we slipped into what one could call romantic writing," he said. "But this was between two people who hardly ever laid eyes on each other. She was never required to be in the office."
Keillor also wrote several times about wanting to touch the woman, kiss her or be naked with her. She replied in kind. The emails also included some explicit acknowledgements by Keillor of their work relationship, with him apologizing for some of the emails and noting that he was the person she worked for — but that he didn't feel like her boss.
One incident recalled
When MPR cut ties with Keillor in November, his public statement at the time acknowledged one incident — placing his hand on a woman's bare back in what he portrayed as an accident. He said then it was the only incident he could remember.
A timeline provided along with the emails said it was in July 2015 when Keillor's hand went inside her shirt and he touched her back as they embraced while at lunch. That was the same month in which he sent the email about holding her breast. In a July 2016 email, as he neared retirement, Keillor apologized to the woman; she replied that she forgave him.
Keillor was accompanied in the interview by his attorney, Eric Nilsson, who highlighted the woman's status as a freelancer.
"There's an important distinction between an employee and an independent contractor. This woman was an independent contractor," he said.
Until his retirement in 2016, Keillor, 75, entertained millions weekly on A Prairie Home Companion, the show he created in 1974.
MPR faced a backlash from some listeners when it ended its relationship with him, in part because it provided scant details of the allegations against him. It later gave more details based on what the company said was a 12-page letter from the woman.
MPR has removed archived Keillor shows from its website and no longer rebroadcasts shows he hosted. It also ended broadcasts of The Writer's Almanac, his daily reading of literary events and a poem. Talks between Keillor and MPR over transitioning their business relationship have gone nowhere since early January.