Arizona congressman to resign after discussing child surrogacy with female staffers

Lauren Gambino
Trent Franks said he would step down at the end of January. Photograph: Aaron P Bernstein/Reuters

The Arizona congressman Trent Franks has announced he will resign from Congress at the end of January after discussing child surrogacy with female staff members.

“I have recently learned that the Ethics Committee is reviewing an inquiry regarding my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates, making each feel uncomfortable,” Franks said in a statement on Thursday. “I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress.”

However, the Arizona Republican insisted, “I want to make one thing completely clear. I have absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff.”

Franks, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus and a staunch social conservative, said he would step down on 31 January 2018. Roll Call first reported the story.

Franks’ departure comes amid widening allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct in politics and increased scrutiny over how such claims are handled on Capitol Hill.

Just hours before Franks’ announcement, the Minnesota senator Al Franken, a Democrat, said he would resign in the coming weeks after women accused him of sexual harassment. It also came days after the departure of the Democratic congressman John Conyers, the longest-serving African American member in House history, who is facing accusations that he made repeated unwanted sexual advances toward female staffers.

Franks, who represents a deeply conservative district and is known in Washington as an anti-abortion crusader who frequently cites scripture, could be seen on the House floor on Thursday huddling with his fellow Arizona Republicans David Schweikert and Andy Biggs, just after the story broke. As he walked off the floor, Franks declined to confirm to reporters that he intended to resign.

“I’ll let the statement speak for itself,” he said, in a rush to the elevator banks.

In his lengthy written statement, Franks said he took “full responsibility” for the way he “broached the topic, which unbeknownst to me until very recently, made certain individuals uncomfortable”.

He also shared details about the difficulties he and his wife had had conceiving a child, including three miscarriages and two failed attempts to adopt a child before a “wonderful and loving lady” acted as a gestational surrogate for their twins. He said the process was a “pro-life approach that did not discard or throw away any embryos”.

Franks said the couple continued to look for surrogates to give their twins another sibling.

The statement ending by saying, in part: “In the midst of this current cultural and media climate 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 and my staff and my noble colleagues in the House of Representatives through hyperbolized public excoriation.”

“It is with great sadness that for the sake of the causes I deeply love, I must now step back from the battle I have spent over three decades fighting,” Franks added. “I hope my resignation will remain distinct from the great gains we have made.”

The House speaker, Paul Ryan, said in a statement that on 29 November he had been “briefed on credible claims of misconduct by Rep. Trent Franks” that he found “serious and requiring action”. He also said that Franks, when presented with the accusations, did not deny them and that Ryan told him he should resign.

In background further provided by Ryan’s office, it was disclosed that an investigation was opened two weeks ago when the speaker’s general counsel was given “information about troubling behavior by Rep. Trent Franks directed at a former staffer”.

The Arizona Republic reported that last week the congressman declined to respond to a request by the paper about whether he was aware of any legal settlements “to resolve claims against him involving sexual harassment or creating a hostile workplace for women”.

In light of the allegations in Congress, a group of lawmakers led by a coalition of bipartisan women are pushing for stricter standards for reporting sexual assault and would reform the rules around settling harassment claims. Currently, accusations of sexual harassment in Congress are overseen by the little-known Office of Compliance, which over two decades used roughly $17m in taxpayer dollars to pay out settlements and awards to federal employees.

Last week, an ethics panel in the House of Representatives demanded records of all settlements for sexual harassment made in the lower chamber of Congress.

It was revealed that Conyers was among those who used the fund to quietly settle a claim for $27,000 with a former staffer who said she was fired for refusing to give in to his repeated sexual advancements. It was later unearthed that the Texas Republican Blake Farenthold settled a 2014 sexual harassment complaint with a former female aide for $84,000. Both men deny the allegations. The House ethics committee also announced Thursday night that it was launching an investigation into the claims against Farenthold.

The rapid succession of resignations this week is an indicator of how politically toxic the issue has become since the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct.

  • This article was amended on 7 December 2017. An earlier version said Trent Franks asked female staff members to act as surrogate mothers. This has been changed to say that Franks discussed surrogacy with his staff members.