Sen. Al Franken apologized Monday to “everyone who has counted on me to be a champion for women” as the Minnesota Democrat fought to bolster his support with his first Capitol public appearance since being drawn into a wave of sexual harassment accusations buffeting Congress.
Franken spoke as lawmakers began returning from an extraordinary weeklong Thanksgiving break that saw sexually tinged problems engulf two other legislators as well: Reps. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Joe Barton (R-Texas). Those revelations were on top of allegations that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and sought romantic relationships with other teenagers when he was in his 30s four decades ago, which he has denied.
With harassment charges bringing down big names in the worlds of entertainment and journalism, Congress was adding widespread complaints about how it handles such incidents to its pile of year-end work.
A new allegation, indeed, surfaced late Monday against Conyers.
A former deputy chief of staff for Conyers said the veteran lawmaker had made unwanted sexual advances toward her, including inappropriate touching.
Deanna Maher, who ran a Michigan office for him from 1997 to 2005, told The Detroit News that there were three instances of inappropriate conduct.
She says the first was in 1997 during an event with the Congressional Black Caucus, when she rejected his offer to share a hotel room and have sex. She said the others involved unwanted touching in a car in 1998 and unwanted touching of her legs under her dress in 1999.
Conyers' attorney Arnold Reed questioned why Maher continued to work for him after the alleged incidents.
Maher said she needed a job at age 57 and feared no one would hire her.
In a brief appearance before reporters in Washington Monday, Franken stopped short of specifying how his memory differs from four women's accounts of separate incidents in which he allegedly initiated improper sexual contact. He said he recalls “differently” one woman's allegation that he forcibly kissed her but provided no detail, and said he doesn't remember three other times women assert he grabbed their buttocks, citing “tens of thousands” of people he meets annually.
“But I feel that you have to respect, you know, women's experience,” he said.
Franken said he'll cooperate with an Ethics Committee investigation of his behavior. He said it will take “a long time for me to regain people's trust” and said he hoped to begin that process by returning to work.
“I want to be someone who adds something to this conversation,” said Franken, a longtime liberal.
Looking for new ways for reporting, settlement
The House planned to vote Wednesday on a resolution requiring lawmakers and staff to annually complete anti-harassment training. Its chief sponsors included Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia) and Jackie Speier (D-California), who has said she was sexually assaulted by a male chief of staff as a House aide decades ago. The Senate approved a similar measure this month.
With many lawmakers - particularly women - pushing for more, the House Administration Committee planned a hearing next week on how to strengthen Congress' processing of harassment allegations. Under the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, complaints have been sent to an obscure Office of Compliance, which requires a lengthy counseling and mediation period and has allowed virtually no public disclosure of cases.
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Mississippi) said the hearing will consider “ways to create a respectful reporting and settlement process” and said he expected legislation by early 2018. Comstock, also on that panel, said members are discussing whether federal funds should be spent to settle harassment suits and if people can be released from nondisclosure agreements.
Congress' procedures drew intensified fire after a report last week by the news website BuzzFeed that Conyers' office paid a woman more than $27,000 under a confidentiality agreement to settle a complaint in 2015 that she was fired from his Washington staff because she rejected his sexual advances. The money came from taxpayers, not Conyers himself.
Conyers, 88, the House's current longest-serving member, has relinquished his post as top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and the House Ethics Committee is reviewing the case. He's denied the allegations.
Late Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said she'd met with a woman who described “unacceptable and disappointing” treatment from Conyers when she worked for the Judiciary panel in the 1990s. Melanie Sloan, an attorney, told The Washington Post last week that Conyers criticized her appearance and once attended a meeting in his underwear, but said she didn't feel sexually harassed.
Conyers' counsel has denied Sloan's allegation. Pelosi said she believes Sloan and said the “ridiculous system” of secret settlements must be ended so accusers can speak to the Ethics committee.
Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) have introduced legislation requiring that lawmakers who settle harassment claims with the Office of Compliance repay the Treasury for the settlement. It would eliminate mandatory nondisclosure agreements as a condition for entering mediation and require public identification of offices that have settled cases.
Barton, a 32-year House veteran, has acknowledged sharing a nude photo of himself with an unidentified lover that was spread online. He's accused her of threatening to make it public when he ended the relationship.
The woman told The Washington Post that she didn't put it online and said the congressman threatened to go to the authorities if she exposed his conduct. Barton, 68, said he was separated from his second wife at the time and has apologized for not using “better judgment.”
Leeann Tweeden, now a Los Angeles radio news anchor, has said Franken forcibly kissed her on a USO tour and took a sexually suggestive photo while she was sleeping in 2006, before he entered the Senate. Three other women allege Franken grabbed their buttocks while posing with them for photos during campaign events in 2007, 2008 and 2010.