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Sexual misconduct allegations could keep Senate Ethics Committee busy

Sen. Al Franken appears likely to face an ethics investigation, the first time in 25 years that the Senate has taken up such an inquiry.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., listens to the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 18.Jason Connolly / AFP - Getty Images

The Senate Ethics Committee is being asked to do something it hasn't done in 25 years — investigate claims of sexual misconduct against a sitting senator.

Just hours after such accusations surfaced against Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called for an Ethics Committee probe — and was quickly joined by several of Franken’s Senate colleagues from both parties. Franken himself said he supported an investigation and would cooperate.

Franken was accused Thursday by a radio news anchor of forcibly kissing and groping her a decade ago.

A spokesman for the committee declined to comment.

If the Ethics Committee moves forward, it would mark the first time it has investigated sexual harassment claims against a senator since 1992, when the panel — led at the time by McConnell — investigated Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., on charges of sexual harassment.

Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) is shown in this May 14, 1995 photo.Mark Wilson / AP file

Packwood’s trouble began in November 1992, when The Washington Post reported that 10 women, including former staff members, alleged that the senator had made unwanted sexual advances. McConnell, in announcing a 10-volume indictment against Packwood after a nearly three-year probe, said the senator had exercised "physical coercion" toward women, as well as "a habitual pattern of aggressive, blatantly sexual advances, mostly directed at members of his own staff or others whose livelihoods were connected in some way to his power and authority as a Senator."

The results for Packwood were career-ending. The committee recommended in September 1995 that Packwood be expelled. He resigned almost immediately.

Formally known as the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, the body handles all issues related to ethics for every senator and staffer. Established by the federal Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the committee's jurisdiction includes allegations pertaining to the giving and receiving of gifts by senators, as well as "unauthorized disclosures of intelligence information" by senators or employees of the Senate. The committee is also charged with investigating "allegations of sexual discrimination, including sexual harassment, or sexual misconduct."

Six members — three from each party — sit on the committee. Its chairman is Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., is the vice chairman. The other four members are Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

In this file photo, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) buries his head in his hands after an exchange with Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch as he testifies before a Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing on how Russia allegedly used their services to try to sway the 2016 U.S. elections, on Capitol Hill on October 31, 2017 in Washington.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

If the committee finds that a violation has occurred, the committee may take a series of actions, including minor ones like issuing a public or private letter of admonition, or more serious ones, like recommending that the full Senate take disciplinary action.

Those recommendations include censure, restitution or payment by the senator or staffer — and, possibly, expulsion. If the committee recommends expulsion, votes by two-thirds of the full Senate would then be required to remove the lawmaker.

In a statement Thursday, Coons said he "cannot comment on any matter that may or may not come forward of the committee."

Meanwhile, the committee could be looking at a busy 2018, as Franken’s situation is just one of several it might have to deal with.

McConnell has said that if Republican Roy Moore — who has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct — wins his special Senate election in Alabama next month, he will face a Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

And earlier Thursday, McConnell also said he wanted the committee to "immediately investigate" Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., whose federal bribery trial ended in a mistrial.

The Ethics Committee said Thursday it had "deferred" a preliminary inquiry into Menendez in 2013 after the Department of Justice began investigating the senator, but now "intends to resume its process."