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The Past, Present & Future of Sexual Harassment in Congress: Franken, Franks Resign

by Countable | 12.8.17

The Present History of Sexual Harassment in Congress

This bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee investigates activities that are against the law, reflect poorly on the legislative body, or violate the Senate’s code of conduct or rules. The Ethics Committee can recommend disciplinary action, rule changes, and/or report illegal activity to state or federal law enforcement. The House has a similar committee.

Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona

On December 7, 2017, Franks announced that he plans to resign from Congress - effective January 31, 2018 - amid a House Ethics Committee investigation into complaints he discussed surrogacy with two female staffers.

"I have recently learned that the Ethics Committee is reviewing an inquiry regarding my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates, making each feel uncomfortable," Franks said in a statement. “I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress.”

Franks said that the surrogacy discussion came about because he and his wife "have long struggled with infertility" and wanted to have another child.

"Due to my familiarity and experience with the process of surrogacy, I clearly became insensitive as to how the discussion of such an intensely personal topic might affect others."

The Arizona lawmaker’s resignation letter was accepted by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Ryan said he was first briefed about the allegations on November 30. The following day, Ryan met with Franks and, when Franks "did not deny" the misconduct, the speaker told him he intended to refer the allegations to the House Ethics Committee and urged Franks to step down.

"The speaker takes seriously his obligation to ensure a safe workplace in the House," Ryan’s office said.


Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota

UPDATE: December 7, 2017: Franken announced he would resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

“Minnesotans deserve a senator who can focus with all her energy on addressing the challenges they face every day,” Franken said in a speech that lasted almost 11 minutes.

“I know there’s been a very different picture of me painted through the last few weeks, but I know who I really am,” Franken said. Regarding the claims against him, the Minnesota lawmaker said: “Some of the allegations aren’t true. Others I remember differently.”

Franken also took the opportunity to criticize what he sees as a double-standard on sexual misconduct in regards to the allegations against President Donald Trump and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.

“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party."

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is now "facing a high-pressure decision over appointing a replacement," according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

December 6, 2017: Thirty Democratic senators - 13 female, 17 male - are calling for Franken to resign as allegations of sexual harassment against the Minnesota senator continue to grow. Franken's office said he'll "be making an announcement tomorrow."

On November 30, 2017, the Senate Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Sen. Al Franken—the same day a fifth woman came forward and accused the Minnesota senator of groping her.

In a statement, the committee said that while it does not “generally comment on pending matters or matters that may come before it, in this instance, the Committee is publicly confirming that it has opened a preliminary inquiry into Senator Franken’s alleged misconduct.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) was accused of sexual harassment, leading lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – and Franken himself – to call for an ethics committee investigation.

"I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences," Franken said in his apology statement. “I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.”


Rep. John Conyers of Michigan

December 5, 2017: Rep. John Conyers – the longest-serving House member – has retired from Congress amid sexual harassment claims. The Michigan Democrat, and founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has endorsed his son to replace him.

"I am retiring today, I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the support," Conyers told a morning radio show on Detroit’s Praise 102.7 FM. “I have a great family here and especially in my oldest boy, John Conyers III, who incidentally I endorse to replace me in my seat in Congress.”

Regarding the sexual harassment allegations, Conyers said:

"They are not accurate, they're not true and I think that they're something that I can't explain where they came from."

Countable's original reporting on Conyers appears below.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) is the longest serving member of the House of Representatives currently sitting. He has held congressional office since 1964. He has also now been accused of harassment by two former staffers. Conyers has acknowledged that he reached a settlement with a third woman in 2015.

Various members of the House have called for Conyers to resign, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Conyers founded.

Conyers has so far been defiant and refuses to step down until the ethics investigation into his conduct is concluded, though he has stepped down as ranking Democrat for the House Judiciary Committee.


Roy Moore of Alabama

The revelations about Franken come as the Senate is grappling with the possibility that Alabama Republican Roy Moore – who’s been accused of sexually assaulting teens while in his 30s – could win an upcoming special election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that if Moore wins, he’d "immediately" face the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.


The Past History of Sexual Harassment in Congress

Time Magazine looked at previous Senate Ethics Committee investigations into sexual misconduct – and how they bore out.

Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon

"The Senator Who Was Defiant to the End," Time wrote of Sen. Packwood. In the early 1990s, the Oregon senator “was accused of sexually harassing at least 18 women including his own staffers, lobbyists, and campaign aides.” Ten of his accusers detailed the harassment in a Washington Post article; one aide said Packwood kissed her on the back of the neck and tried to pull off her clothes.

Following a 30-month investigation – which was delayed by Packwood going to court to try and block a subpoena of his diaries – the Ethics Committee said it had found "substantial credible evidence" for the charges against him. The committee - which McConnell served on at the time - voted to expel Packwood from the Senate for sexual misconduct, tampering with evidence, and working with a lobbyist to get his wife a job. Before the full Senate could vote to expel him, Packwood resigned. He left Washington in 1995 as a “pariah in his state."


Democratic Sen. Brock Adams of Washington

"Not every case of misconduct has gone that far," Time wrote in its introduction of Adams. The Washington senator was accused of sexually harassing several women over a period of two decades; one of the woman accused him of rape. The National Organization of Women (NOW) called for an investigation, but five members of the Ethics Committee responded in a letter that they were rejecting a sexual misconduct inquiry because all but one of the alleged incidents happened before Adams took office — and because the rape had been previously investigated by the U.S. attorney’s office.

"Moreover," the letter said, “in the five years since the incident allegedly occurred, the committee has never received from the alleged victim any indication of a desire to initiate proceedings here.”

Adams quit his campaign for a second term when the story broke. Democratic leaders urged him to resign, but Adams stayed in office until his term ended.


Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho

In 2008, the Ethics Committee admonished Craig, saying he brought discredit on the Senate for acting improperly in connection with a men’s room sex sting. The panel said Craig’s attempt to withdraw his guilty plea following his arrest at the Minneapolis airport was an effort to evade legal consequences of his actions. Craig initially said he’d resign, but changed his mind and served out his term.


Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada

The ethic panel’s last major investigation focused on this Nevada senator who had an affair with the wife of a top staffer, a man the New York Times described as Ensign’s "best friend and most loyal aide." As the Washington Post summarized: “Disclosure of the affair and Ensign’s actions to keep it quiet, including accusations that he helped the staffer find work as a lobbyist, resulted in investigations by the FBI, Federal Election Commission and the Senate.” Ensign resigned in 2011.


The Future of Sexual Harassment in Congress

In light of recent allegations against Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and potential incoming senator Roy Moore, Congress has decided they have to take action to address sexual harassment in the halls of the capital.

The House passed a resolution that will require all House members and their staffs to attend mandatory sexual harrassment and discrimination training.

There are also ongoing hearings, and proposed legislation, on the harassment settlements that have been paid out using taxpayer money.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) posted this statement to Twitter:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not made a statement about how harassment will be handled in the Senate.


What do you think?

Do you support the Senate Ethics Committee? At what point in alleged misconduct should the committee become involved? Should Congress investigate their own? Or should there be some kind of outside committee? Do Moore and Franken warrant investigation? Hit Take Action, tell your reps, then share your thoughts below.

— Josh Herman

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(Photo Credit: zimmytws / iStockphoto)

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