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Garrison Keillor describes alleged sexual misconduct as ‘romantic writing’

Garrison Keillor poses for a photo in Minneapolis on Feb. 23. (Jeff Baenen/Associated Press)

Of the many powerful men accused of sexual misconduct in recent months, few have defended themselves with the same fervor as Garrison Keillor.

When the 75-year-old humorist was fired by Minnesota Public Radio in November over unspecified allegations of inappropriate behavior toward a former employee of his show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” he immediately offered his own version of events to reporters. He believed he was ousted, he told news outlets at the time, because he had “put my hand on a woman’s bare back” during a lunch outing in 2015.

It wasn’t until late January that MPR elaborated on the claims against Keillor, which included “unwanted sexual touching,” “requests for sexual contact” and sexually explicit messages, as The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser reported. An MPR investigation from the same week, citing interviews with dozens of his former colleagues, described a “years-long pattern of behavior that left several women who worked for Keillor feeling mistreated, sexualized or belittled.”

Now, Keillor, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, has again gone on the record to press his side of the story.

In some of his first extended interviews since MPR cut ties with him, Keillor told the Associated Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune that a string of sexually suggestive emails he exchanged with his accuser were “romantic writing” that never led to a physical relationship.

“No button was unbuttoned and no zipper was unzipped,” Keillor told the Associated Press. “I never kissed her. … This was a flirtation between two writers that took place in writing.”

The Associated Press and the Star Tribune reported that Keillor shared “hundreds” of personal emails he exchanged with his accuser between 2004 and 2017, some of which purportedly contain passages in which he described sexual fantasies. The Post has not seen the emails.

Keillor dismissed the idea that his position at the helm of one of the country’s most popular radio programs created a power dynamic that allowed him to manipulate the employee.

“I was not really the boss around ‘Prairie Home Companion,’” he told the Associated Press. “I was a writer sitting in a dim office at a typewriter, back in the old days. … I had no control over her whatsoever. She worked at home.”

But the woman, who has not been publicly identified, said Keillor’s role on the show was precisely what made her feel violated, according to the Associated Press. Keillor “had the power to provide or take away job assignments and opportunities,” she said, adding that she never wanted anything but a “collegial” relationship with the host.

“He also acknowledged several times that power imbalance between us, recognizing how his conduct could be offensive when it was coming from the person for whom I work,” she told the Associated Press.

“He was my mentor and employer,” she said. “As such, he had power over me. Every time I said ‘no’ or tried to avoid him I feared I was saying ‘no’ to my future.”

Several high profile reporters and television personalities have lost their jobs over recent sexual harassment and abuse allegations. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Similar concerns have formed the core of numerous high-profile sexual misconduct complaints in recent months, as scores of women and some men in media, entertainment and government have come forward with accusations against their superiors. Many of the public allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein that sparked the #MeToo movement were made by women who claimed that he used his position as a Hollywood gatekeeper to abuse and later silence them.

Keillor’s accuser told the Star Tribune through her attorney, Frances Baillon, that she had warned the host and other superiors at “A Prairie Home Companion” as early as 2011 that his alleged advances were unwelcome. By October 2015, she had made four other reports about Keillor’s behavior, Baillon said.

“This is the exact reason there are laws that protect employees from being subjected to situations they don’t feel comfortable in but feel compelled to comply with,” Baillon told the newspaper.

Keillor portrayed the relationship as “mutual” and played down the notion that he wielded outsize power over the employee.

“We were two writers and we wrote back and forth and sometimes we slipped into what one could call them romantic writing,” he told the Associated Press. “But this was between two people who hardly ever laid eyes on each other. She was never required to be in the office.”

Speaking to the Star Tribune, Keillor suggested that smartphones caused him to get carried away.

“Use any word you want to describe it you want to, I plead guilty,” he said. “Stupid? Yes, in retrospect. But it was mutual. And it is kind of a function of the ease of this dreamy technology.”

MPR has said previously that investigators from an outside firm looked into “dozens” of allegations of “sexually inappropriate incidents” in their probe of Keillor, as The Post has reported. The station also made clear in a statement last month that the complaint came from a woman who “worked for Garrison on ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’

An MPR spokeswoman told the Associated Press on Saturday that the station stands by its handling of the matter: “Our decision was not based on flirtations or fantasies, but based on facts confirming unacceptable behavior in the workplace by a person in a position of power over someone who worked for him.”

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