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Senate ethics panel opens Franken inquiry, with fact-finding first step

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Senate has started its investigation into groping allegations against Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat.

No surprise there. After all, Franken himself asked for one, as did other senators.

The Senate Select Committee on Ethics released this statement Thursday:

"The Committee is aware of the recent allegations against Senator AI Franken, as well as the calls for an ethics investigation. While the Committee 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."

Not much there.

So what happens now?

First, the committee needs to finish this "preliminary inquiry" thing. That's basically the fact-finding investigation. It all happens in private. Investigators have the power of subpoena, and they take depositions.

At the end the preliminary inquiry, the six-member committee — the only Senate committee with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans — receives a report from investigators. It includes recommendations. But that's usually secret, too.

At any point, it's possible the ethics process could be halted if a criminal investigation breaks out.

Then the committee "will determine whether there is substantial credible evidence which provides substantial cause for the Committee to conclude that a violation has occurred," according to the committee.

It sounds lawyerly. And it is. However, it's important to remember this is not court. It's political. This committee and its processes are how the Senate polices itself, based on its own rules, which do generally parallel a court.

One key difference is the jury is composed of six elected politicians who don't wear black robes.

Next, the committee will vote on whether to scold Franken (publicly or privately) or kick it up a notch with an "adjudicatory review."

This is the part where the theater comes in. Public hearings. Witnesses under oath. Live TV. Maybe. It's up to the committee.

Then the committee, like a jury, deliberates. In private.

When it's done, the committee issues a final report to the Senate, including a recommendation of whether there should be discipline.

That would be public. Unless the committee decides to keep it private.

The worst thing that could happen to Franken is expulsion from the Senate. That would require a two-thirds vote — a provision outlined in Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution.

That's happened 15 times since 1789, with 14 of those senators accused of supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.

After two weeks of public questions about his behavior, Franken posted on his Facebook page Friday evening that he had been glad to get back to work, on student debt, prescription drug prices, the opioid crisis and the Republican tax plan.

"I'm fighting (the tax plan) with all I've got," he said.

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