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Trent Franks to resign over ethics probe into asking staffers to bear his child

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, a Maricopa County Republican, will resign after the House Ethics Committee began investigating his request of two female staffers that they be surrogate mothers to a child for him.

Update: Staffer: Franks offered $5 million to be surrogate; congressman resigns immediately

Franks acknowledged having asked two of his now-former employees if they were willing to be surrogates. Franks and his wife have had difficulties with infertility, he said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan told Franks to resign from Congress last week after being briefed on the allegations about the Arizona congressman, Ryan's office said.

Rather than face what he called a "sensationalized trial by media," Franks will leave Congress on Jan. 31, 2018, he said in a written statement. A special election early next year will determine a replacement through the end of the term, after next November's regular election cycle.

"I do want to take full and personal responsibility for the ways I have broached a topic that, unbeknownst to me until very recently, made certain individuals uncomfortable," he said.

"My wife and I have long struggled with infertility. We experienced three miscarriages," Franks said, noting that his twin children were carried by a surrogate mother, and that another surrogate pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.

Franks said that the Ethics Committee was "reviewing an inquiry regarding my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates." While the House speaker told Franks he should resign last week, the congressman didn't announce his resignation until after the vote on the investigation.

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"I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress," Franks said.

"I am deeply convinced I would be unable to complete a fair House Ethics investigation before distorted and sensationalized versions of this story would put me, my family, my staff and my noble colleagues in the House of Representatives through hyperbolized public excoriation," Franks said.

Franks' statement did not include any apology or other direct statement to the employees with whom he discussed carrying his child.

The two employees were not named, nor was the period in which they worked for Franks detailed.

"I have absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual conduct with any member of my congressional staff," he said.

"Last Wednesday, the speaker was briefed on credible claims of misconduct by Rep. Trent Franks," according to a statement from Ryan's office. "He found the allegations to be serious and requiring action. The next day, the speaker presented Rep. Franks with the allegations, which he did not deny. The speaker told Rep. Franks that he intended to refer the allegations directly to the House Ethics Committee and told him that he should resign from Congress. The allegations were filed with the Ethics Committee last Friday."

The leaders of the House Ethics Committee announced Thursday that the Arizona congressman was facing an investigation "to determine whether Rep. Trent Franks engaged in conduct that constitutes sexual harassment and/or retaliation for opposing sexual harassment."

The committee voted unanimously on Thursday to set up an investigative subcommittee to probe Franks' behavior.

From Ryan's office:

About two weeks ago, the general counsel to the speaker was contacted by a friend with information about troubling behavior by Rep. Trent Franks directed at a former staffer that took place at the time that this person worked in the congressman's office. The speaker’s general counsel believed the information was concerning and warranted examination. The speaker’s general counsel inquired whether the former staffer would be willing to share their story directly, and the person agreed. On Tuesday of last week, the speaker’s general counsel interviewed the former staffer, who shared claims of misconduct directed at this person as well as a second former staff member. The claim involving the second aide was validated independently by the speaker’s office through a third party who had been made aware of the matter at the time. The next day, the speaker was briefed. The following day, he brought the claims to Rep. Franks, and the next morning the complaint was filed with the Ethics Committee. Subsequent conversations took place this week between the speaker and Rep. Franks leading to the congressman’s decision to offer his letter of resignation.

Earlier, Roll Call broke the news that Franks was set to resign, citing "rumors of inappropriate behavior."

It is unclear exactly why Franks is stepping down, but one Arizona Republican said there had been rumors of inappropriate behavior. The Republican said the congressman had apparently been making plans to run for Senate in 2012, but abruptly canceled those plans.

“There’s been rumors swirling around him for years, at least in 2012,” the Republican said. “And if this turns out to be true, there won’t be that many people who are surprised.”

The news about Franks comes the same day that U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., announced that he would resign soon in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., also announced his resignation over sexual harassment claims this week.

Franks has avoided commenting on the ongoing wave of accusations of harassment, including not commenting on the Senate candidacy of Roy Moore.

Franks, first elected to Congress in 2002, represents a solidly Republican swath northwest of Phoenix in CD 8. He won his eighth term by 37 points.

The rightwing conservative — a member of the Freedom Caucus — has been among the most crusading anti-abortion members of Congress, authoring numerous bills to limit reproductive choice.

In 2013, he notoriously claimed that the "incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low," as he pushed a bill that limited abortions without an exception for victims of rape or incest.

He is also among the richest members of Congress, with a net worth of between $5 and $54 million, according to financial disclosures. Much of his wealth is related to his oil industry holdings, including in Trinity Petroleum, a company run by his two brothers.

With Franks leaving his seat, a special election will be called to replace him.

Franks’ announcement sets up what one analyst said could be a “Wild West free-for-all” race for a solidly Republican 8th District congressional seat. Republicans made up 41 percent of registered voters in the district, according to the latest registration numbers from the Arizona Secretary of State, compared to 24 percent for Democrats and 34 percent for independents.

Secretary of State Michele Reagan said in a tweet Thursday that, once the vacancy becomes official, state elections law says a special primary election will have to be held within 80-90 days, followed by a special general election 50-60 days after that.

She said that once the House officially reports a vacant seat to the state, the governor’s office will have 72 hours to announce the dates for those elections. Calls to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office were not immediately returned.

Most political watchers said they were surprised by the announcement, but not by the decision amid the current furor over sexual harassment in the workplace.

Jim Kolbe, a former Republican member of Congress from Tucson, said he was surprised and saddened by the news.

“Obviously I’m very saddened when any member feels they have to resign for whatever reasons,” Kolbe said. “But that’s his decision, his choice.

“I had no idea there was any reason he might resign. He was certainly moving up through the ranks with a chairmanship in a subcommittee, so this is quite a surprise,” Kolbe said.

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As Republicans scramble to field primary candidate for the upcoming special election (already mentioned have been state Sens. Debbie Lesko and Kimberly Yee, former Gov. Jan Brewer and Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat), a Democratic challenger was already in the running. Hiral Tipirneni raised more than $165,000 during the third quarter of 2017, more than Franks' campaign had pulled in.

Reaction from the Arizona Republican Party was muted.

"We thank Congressman Franks for his years of service in Arizona's Eighth Congressional District," state party chair Jonathan Lines said in a news release. "There will be a special election to replace Congressman Franks, and I am certain Republicans will hold this seat."

Lines did not comment on Franks' conduct.

Democrats, on the other hand, blasted the GOP congressman.

"Let's be clear, Trent Franks finds himself out of a job, not only because of his inappropriate behavior, but because he was cowardly unwilling to go down a path where he'd be proven a complete fraud," said Herschel Fink, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.

"His resignation statement is an affront to the brave women coming forward with their stories. Trying to spin his way out of his inappropriate actions is not only sad, it's disgraceful," Fink said in a statement released by the state party.

"Let's not prolong this any further, congressman," Fink said. "Leave now. Save taxpayers their money. And just avoid further embarrassing the good people of Congressional District 8."

Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant, said he was stunned by the news.

“Congressman Franks is one of those people who loved his job immensely, who appreciated being there and who you always thought would probably leave Congress in a box,” Rose said.

He predicted a rush of candidates will seek the seat.

“It is going to be a Wild West free-for-all for that seat because it’s such a safe Republican district,” Rose said. “It’s a jewel of a district for anyone who wants to be in Congress for a long period of time.”

That was echoed by Mike Noble, a consultant at MBQF Consulting, who said any Republican running for another state office may rethink their plans to take a shot at Franks’ open seat. He predicted state legislators would soon be in a “race to plant their flag first.”

“This is just like Flake’s announcement, the whole political landscape has shifted,” Noble said, referring to Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s surprise announcement in October that he will not seek re-election in 2018. “It’s absolutely a free-for-all.”

“He is the longest-serving Republican incumbent in Arizona currently and nobody was even thinking about that as an option but now it has completely turned the tables,” Noble said.

Cronkite News reporters Andrew Nicla and Adrienne St. Clair contributed to this story. Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified political analyst Jason Rose’s firm. Rose is a Republican political consultant. 

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2 comments on this story

Dec 7, 2017, 4:03 pm
-1 +3

Yes except no one seems to have the huevos to say “it stops now” to Donald Trump. Personally I was really hoping that Franken would have the creativity to say “Mr. Trump, lets make a deal. A bipartisan deal. I resign when you resign. I’ve got allegations from a few women, you’ve got tapes, photos, witnesses and allegations from 16. Again, I’ll go when you do.”

Dec 7, 2017, 3:54 pm
-1 +2

I doubt there are very few women who have not been sexually harassed in the workplace. I think we are seeing the tip of the iceberg, because of the prevailing attitude that powerful men have towards women. Until women are considered equal, have equal job opportunities, are paid equally, are equally represented politically, and share power equally, we still have work to do.  When women are no longer mentally, sexually, and physically abused, then both men and women will be truly liberated.  Until then, a lot of heads are going to roll. It has taken centuries to get to this place, where women are speaking up and saying, “It stops now!”

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Connor Radnovich/Cronkite News

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, shown in a 2013 file photo, said he will resign his seat Jan. 31 in the face of a House Ethics Committee investigation of claims by former female staffers of possible sexual harassment.