US Politics

‘Ashamed’ US Senator Al Franken says sorry again as Congress targets harassment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 12:17pm

An “ashamed” US senator said he would work to regain the people’s trust Monday after being accused of sexual misconduct, as Congress moved to root out harassment with allegations now targeting several sitting lawmakers.

Democrat Al Franken, a former comedian and darling of the political left, offered a fresh apology as he returned to Capitol Hill after the Thanksgiving break, a day after a veteran fellow Democrat, John Conyers, stepped down from a leadership position over similar claims of misconduct.

Compounding the discomfort in Washington, President Donald Trump – who himself has faced harassment accusations – has doubled down on his support for Roy Moore, the embattled Republican Senate candidate from Alabama who stands accused of molesting teenage girls as young as 14.

But in a sign of the sensitivity surrounding Moore – whose candidacy has been disavowed by Republican Party leaders – the White House also said Trump would not be travelling to Alabama to stump for the controversial former judge.

The world of Washington politics has been rocked by allegations of harassment in its ranks, following broader revelations of endemic sexual misconduct in Hollywood and the media, and lawmakers returned from a week-long break determined to right a listing ship.

The Senate recently voted to make anti-harassment training mandatory for all senators and staff, with the House of Representatives to vote on a similar measure this week.

With fresh allegations targeting two unnamed lawmakers, a congresswoman introduced a bill that would overhaul the antiquated process for filing harassment complaints to allow for greater transparency, accountability, and victim support.

The Congressional Office of Compliance acknowledged last week that it has paid victims over US$17 million in settlements since 1997.

But under current rules, accusers are required to sign non-disclosure agreements to initiate complaints, and any financial settlement reached is secret and paid for by US taxpayers.

The ME TOO CONGRESS Act – introduced by congresswoman Jackie Speier, herself a victim of harassment as a young congressional staffer – would do away with such requirements, and force a lawmaker who settles such a claim to reimburse the government.

Speier’s legislation appears to have the support of top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who called for “an end to the days of secret settlements paid for by taxpayer dollars.”

Franken meanwhile returned to Washington Monday to face the scrutiny of his colleagues – including fellow Democrats who have long called out Trump over the allegations of misconduct levied against him.

The comedian-turned-senator has apologised repeatedly after a sports broadcaster and former model, Leeann Tweeden, accused him of kissing her, and touching her without consent as she slept during a tour entertaining US troops deployed in Afghanistan.

Three women have since come forward to say Franken touched their buttocks inappropriately.

“I know that I have let a lot of people down,” Franken told reporters outside his Senate office. “To all of you, I just want to again say I am sorry.”

But despite saying he feels “embarrassed” and “ashamed,” and promising to cooperate with an ethics investigation, Franken has refused to resign.

“I know there are no magic words that I can say to regain your trust and I know that is going to take time,” he said.

“I’m ready to start that process and it starts with going back to work today.”

With Franken’s standing badly shaken, Democratic leader Pelosi has also been forced to contend with allegations targeting another major party figure, congressman Conyers, accused of sexually harassing staff members.

Targeted by a House Ethics Committee investigation, the 88-year-old Conyers, the longest-serving lawmaker currently in Congress, has left his post on the Judiciary Committee leadership.

Pelosi hailed Conyers as an American “icon” who has “done a great deal to protect women.”

But she tweeted that “no matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment.”

For Republicans, the broader harassment debate is tied up with the allegations targeting Moore, who has refused to exit his Senate race despite multiple accusations of sexual assault.

The leadership of Trump’s Republican Party has withdrawn support for Moore, as have a number of senators, but the president himself has redoubled his support for the former Alabama judge.

Trump tweeted Sunday that “the last thing” Republicans need in the closely divided Senate is a Democrat like Moore’s rival Doug Jones, who he described as “weak” on crime, immigration, gun rights and tax reform.

But the White House said Monday that Trump was “not planning any trip to Alabama” ahead of the December 12 election.