MINNEAPOLIS >> Minnesota Sen. Al Franken broke his silence Sunday after being swept into a nationwide tide of sexual harassment allegations, saying he feels “embarrassed and ashamed” but looks forward to returning to work on Monday and gradually regaining voters’ trust.
The Democrat spoke to a handful of media outlets in Minnesota in the first interviews he’s granted after four women publicly accused him of misconduct. Franken’s staff didn’t respond to repeated interview requests from The Associated Press.
Three women allege that Franken grabbed their buttocks while taking photos with them during campaign events. Franken told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he doesn’t remember the photographs but that such behavior is “not something I would intentionally do.”
Asked whether he expected any other women to step forward with similar allegations, Franken said: “If you had asked me two weeks ago, ‘Would any woman say I had treated her with disrespect?’ I would have said no. So this has just caught me by surprise … I certainly hope not.”
The first woman to come forward was Los Angeles radio news anchor Leeann Tweeden, who earlier this month released a photograph of the former comedian grinning while reaching out as if to grope her as she slept on a military aircraft during a USO tour in 2006. Tweeden said Franken also forcibly kissed her while rehearsing for a USO performance, which Franken has disputed.
Franken told Minnesota Public Radio on Sunday that the photo with Tweeden was “inexcusable,” but he declined to explain it further.
“What my intention was doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am chained to that photo,” Franken said. “She … didn’t have any ability to consent. She had every right to feel violated by that photo. I have apologized to her and I was very grateful that she accepted my apology.”
A few days after Tweeden released the photo, another woman, Lindsay Menz, publicly alleged that Franken pulled her in closely and squeezed her buttocks while they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010.
Two other women, speaking anonymously to The Huffington Post, said this week that Franken grabbed their buttocks during political events in 2007 and 2008, during his first campaign for Senate.
One woman said the then-candidate suggested they visit the bathroom together. Franken has denied propositioning a woman to go to the bathroom and said it was “difficult to respond to anonymous accusers.”
On Sunday, he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that has posed for “tens of thousands of photos” over the years and doesn’t remember any that ended with his hand sliding down to cup women’s backsides.
“I don’t remember these photographs, I don’t,” he said. “This is not something I would intentionally do.”
Franken has walked a careful line in his response to the allegations. He earlier apologized to any woman who felt disrespected from their encounters.
Franken faces a Senate ethics investigation — which he welcomed in the wake of Tweeden’s allegation — though it’s unclear when that review may begin. A swirl of sexual harassment allegations at the Minnesota Capitol forced the resignations of two state lawmakers at party leaders’ urging, but Franken hasn’t faced similar widespread calls to leave his U.S. Senate seat.
Franken came to the Senate after a months-long recount gave him a 312-vote victory in his 2008 election. He immediately tried to distance himself from his decades of professional comedy, which included off-color jokes about rape and disparaging women, and avoided national reporters.
Dozens of women who’ve worked with Franken, including former Senate staffers and women who worked with him on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” signed statements supporting Franken following Tweeden’s allegations.