The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Al Franken championed a Minnesota rape survivor’s bill. Now she wants a new sponsor.

Abby Honold, 22, poses for a photo with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). (Courtesy Abby Honold.)

It was on a November evening in 2014, after a tailgate party on her University of Minnesota campus, that Abby Honold was brutally raped by a fellow student. Despite going to the hospital in an ambulance with bruises and bite marks, despite reporting everything to police, it would take more than a year for Honold to find justice.

In August 2016, her rapist, Daniel Drill-Mellum, pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to six years in prison. Honold’s public and agonizing fight to hold Drill-Mellum accountable drew statewide attention, shedding light on the challenges of reporting and prosecuting sexual assaults.

It also led Honold to the offices of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).  Honold’s convicted rapist, it turns out, had interned for the senator.

Franken, moved by Honold’s story, worked with her to draft a Senate bill that would provide federal funding for special law enforcement training on interviewing victims of trauma. He planned to introduce the bill this month.

“He was one of the few people who listened to me and actually let me talk,” Honold told The Washington Post. “It felt really validating to be heard and to see something come of my experience that was positive for other people.”

So on Thursday, Honold was stunned and crushed when she heard that a Los Angeles radio broadcaster, Leeann Tweeden, had accused Franken of forcibly kissing and groping her during a USO tour in 2006. He was captured posing for a photo grabbing Tweeden’s breasts while she was sleeping.

Honold wholeheartedly believed the woman. She decided that her bill — and her efforts to combat sexual assault — could no longer be associated with someone who was accused of this kind of behavior.

The 22-year-old no longer wants Franken’s name on the legislation when it is introduced and hopes to find someone else to sponsor it.

“It’s really difficult when someone who has been a champion for you turns out to be the exact opposite for someone else,” Honold said in a phone interview.

Honold, who graduated from the University of Minnesota last year, was in a meeting when someone pulled up the photo of Franken grabbing Tweeden’s breasts. “Don’t you work with him?” she was asked.

When she looked into the allegations, Honold quickly realized Tweeden’s account was “no joke.” She called Franken’s office, and his staff agreed it was a good idea to find someone else to take on the proposed bill, “in light of everything else going on,” Honold said.

Franken initially issued a brief apology, saying he didn’t remember the incident the way Leeann Tweeden did, and that he intended his actions to be funny. He later wrote a longer apology:

“I’m sorry,” said the senator. “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.”

He quickly faced fierce condemnation and bipartisan calls for an ethics investigation. Franken could face censure or even expulsion from the Senate.

Franken’s home state colleague, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), condemned his actions.

“This should not have happened to Leeann Tweeden,” Klobuchar said. “This is another example of why we need to change work environments and reporting practices across the nation, including in Congress.”

Honold was heartbroken thinking about her proposed bill, and all of the people she hoped it would help. She planned to visit D.C. after the bill was introduced, to testify and advocate for the legislation.

“That part of it was really a crushing blow, that we wouldn’t get that moment in a couple weeks,” she said.

Honold’s shock mirrored that of others across the country grappling with sexual harassment or assault allegations against men they previously admired, respected or depended on.

Indeed, Franken has portrayed himself as a fierce advocate for women’s rights and has previously pushed for legislation supporting survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

Broadcaster Leeann Tweeden said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) “forcibly kissed” and groped her in 2006. Here’s what Franken has said about sexual violence. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

In 2009, he introduced an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that banned federal funding for “defense contractors who forced employees to mandatory binding arbitration in the case of rape, assault, wrongful imprisonment, harassment, and discrimination.” In 2012, he delivered an emotional speech on the Senate floor about the Violence Against Women Act.

He was highly critical of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in the wake of the sexual assault allegations against him. He said that accused harassers’ mild responses to their accusers lead to a culture of sexual misconduct, and he gave campaign contributions he had received from Weinstein to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

Franken had spoken highly of Honold and her fight for justice. He had appeared alongside her in a news conference about the bill last month, in which he called her his “hero.”

“Abby has shown tremendous courage in coming forward and in her determination to make sure that her attacker was brought to justice,” Franken told the Star Tribune in a statement before the two first met. “Her efforts have shed light on problems in how the system handles sexual assault cases, and I look forward to meeting with Abby personally and continuing to work with her and her team to bring about positive change.”

Honold’s idea for the bill stemmed from her own traumatic experiences answering questions from law enforcement after her rape.

“I felt myself mentally shutting down and not wanting to talk about it anymore,” she told Minnesota Public Radio. “I just wanted it to be over and I just wanted to go home.”

A nurse who conducted her sexual assault forensic exam made all the difference, asking Honold to describe what she smelled, tasted, heard and felt at the time. These details ended up being crucial in the investigation and prosecution of Honold’s case.

It is this technique, known as a forensic experiential trauma interview, that Honold hopes becomes standard practice for law enforcement agencies across the country. Her bill would award grants to police departments to undergo training in these interviewing skills.

Honold, who now gives speeches to high school students and other groups, says she plans to move forward with the bill. She’s optimistic that another lawmaker will come forward to sponsor the legislation.

“I would love if it went to Klobuchar’s office,” she said. “It would be powerful to have this bill sponsored by a female legislator,” she added, especially one from her home state of Minnesota.

“A lot of Minnesotans I know are really crushed by the news,” Honold said about the allegations against Franken. But she thinks it’s about time society is “finally agreeing we shouldn’t tolerate people who abuse women.”

“I remember what it feels like to not be believed and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way,” she said.