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Franken's ethics investigation: a field guide

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Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., attends the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee hearing in the Capitol building on July 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images file

The Senate's Select Committee on Ethics confirmed Thursday it's opened its inquiry into sexual misconduct allegations against Minnesota DFL Sen. Al Franken. However, the scope of that investigation and where it might lead are far from clear. 

At least six women have shared stories of Franken touching them inappropriately, without consent, during photo opportunities, on a celebrity tour to military installations abroad or at political events.

The committee typically goes silent during the first, fact-finding phase of investigations. Experts familiar with the panel's work, though, offered MPR News a view on how the panel works and what to watch for. 

"It's kind of like a grand jury proceeding," said Rob Walker, who served as the committee's chief counsel from 2003 to 2008 and helped oversee several big investigations, including one involving allegations that Idaho Sen. Larry Craig solicited sex in a restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The committee admonished Craig, who would go on to finish his term but did not seek re-election.

The process begins as a private fact-finding effort to determine whether the allegations rise to a level requiring a full-on trial-like proceeding. The six members of the committee — three Republicans and three Democrats — decide if the claims represent a substantial ethics violation. If so, the process become lengthy and difficult for those involved no matter how the final outcome.

"These inquiries can and often do end careers," said Walker. "They draw attention away from the work that individuals are elected to do."

Click on the audio bar above to hear Walker and other experts talk about the process.