U.S. Sen. Al Franken came under fire Thursday after a radio newscaster recounted being groped and kissed by the former comedian during a USO tour of the Middle East in 2006, three years before the Minnesota Democrat took office.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Franken was speaking out about sexual harassment to make his case against forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts that can silence victims of abuse.
As he began his questioning Wednesday of Kirkland & Ellis partner Kate O’Scannlain, the Trump administration’s nominee for U.S. Labor Department solicitor, Franken said the two had spoken earlier in the week about “revelations of system sexual harassment in the workplace across a wide variety of industries.”
“And I think one reason people are horrified is because they find it’s hard to believe it’s so widespread. Part of the reason they don’t know it’s so widespread is because of the forced arbitration clauses found in employment contracts which prevent victims from speaking out, which keeps the arbitration all secret,” Franken said. “In an op-ed published a few months back, Gretchen Carlson, who recently took on her former boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, wrote: ‘So many women are being silenced by employers who force them into a secret, star chamber proceeding called arbitration. By coercing women to remain silent about illegal behavior, the employer is able to shield abusers from true accountability and leave them in place to harass again. The arbitration process has silenced millions of women who otherwise may have come forward if they knew they were not alone.’”
“Ms O’Scannlain,” Franken continued, “you and I discussed this issue. Do you agree that forced arbitration clauses that prevent victims of workplace harassment from speaking out about what has happened to them are problematic?”
O’Scannlain replied: “I do, senator, and we did have a great conversation about that yesterday. I want to say that there’s no place for sexual harassment in the U.S. workforce and that it obviously is a very prevalent issue. And particularly in the instance of Gretchen Carlson, in the Fox News situation, that clause failed her and didn’t enable her to know about the other women who were going through a similar situation.”
Franken pressed O’Scannlain to support stopping companies from including arbitration agreements in employment contracts, saying, “Well, I want to get rid of that clause, that kind of clause.”
O’Scannlain demurred, telling Franken she would not commit to any policy consideration out of deference to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta.
“But I agree that they’re problematic and I agree that the issue needs to be discussed and further studied. And i look forward to working with you on that.”
With that, Franken turned to another nominee at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
On Thursday, the newscaster Leeann Tweeden published a first-person account of being groped and kissed by Franken in December 2006. Tweeden’s post, on the website of the Los Angeles-based KABC Radio, featured a photograph of Franken smiling at a camera with his hands hovering over her breasts.
Tweeden described being forcibly kissed by Franken during a rehearsal for a skit on the USO tour.
“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,” Tweeden wrote. “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.”
Franken said in part in a statement Thursday, responding to and apologizing for this conduct: “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.”
He continued: “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.”