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Mar. 25—A Republican lawmaker on the Legislature's Taxation Committee is facing criticism after he attended a committee meeting using a Zoom video conferencing backdrop that features a reference to convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein.
Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, appeared in the committee's online meeting by video Wednesday with a background screen showing a sign that reads in part, "Harvey Weinstein Charm School . . . Center." A portion of the sign's message is blocked by Bickford's head.
Bickford left the meeting in less than 15 seconds, and when he returned several minutes later, the background image had been changed to lake scenery.
"It was a total mistake and as soon as I realized it, I took it down, "Bickford said in an interview Thursday. "It never should have been in a public setting." Bickford also issued a written apology later Thursday.
Thursday's incident was at least the second time Bickford used the background during a public legislative meeting. The same background appeared in a March 2 meeting of the committee, and more of the sign is visible. It reads: "Harvey Weinstein Charm School Rehab Center." At that meeting, Bickford changed the background after about nine seconds.
Harvey Weinstein is a former Hollywood producer who is serving prison time for rape convictions in New York after more than 80 women made allegations they were sexually assaulted by Weinstein. His case is largely credited with launching the powerful #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation of women.
Bickford said the photo in the background was of a sign in California.
He said the sign was only meant to be shown in private settings. When asked if he thought the sign was funny, Bickford said, "In a private setting with the proper people, yes."
Bickford said Rep. Mo Terry, D-Gorham, the House chair of the committee, contacted him Wednesday night and he told her the same thing. "It has no place in public, it was meant to be in a private setting."
Bickford also apologized in writing.
"I apologize for the screen image that briefly appeared behind me during a recent committee meeting conducted over Zoom," he wrote. "It was inappropriate and in poor taste. I sincerely regret the event and will ensure that it does not happen again. Please accept my apology."
Jenna Howard, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said the Legislature's Human Resources Department was made aware of Bickford's background photo and was looking into whether it was a violation of the Legislature's policy on harassment.
"Harvey Weinstein hurt innumerable women," Fecteau said in a prepared statement. "To make light of violence against women, in any setting, is completely wrong and deeply inappropriate."
Bickford was also rebuked by Democratic leaders at a meeting Thursday of the Legislative Council, which includes the Legislature's presiding officers and the elected leaders of the House and Senate minority and majority caucuses.
Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, called on the Legislature's Human Resources director to review the Legislature's harassment prevention policy and its mandatory training requirements for all lawmakers. Vitelli called the background displayed by Bickford "offensive and disturbing."
"This backdrop made light of the many offenses committed by convicted and infamous sex offender Harvey Weinstein. It is extremely concerning to me that despite our policies and the hard work that's gone into developing trainings for members of the Legislature, that a member of our branch clearly does not understand and appreciate the message his background sends to fellow legislators, the hard-working staff and members of the public."
Vitelli said the fact that the incident occurred during Women's History Month and on Equal Pay Day made it "that much more painful."
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, echoed Vitelli's concerns, noting that lawmakers are "the leaders of our state."
"I guarantee you there are some young women who are waiting to see how we respond to this," Daughtry said. "Joking about sexual violence or someone who is a convicted serial rapist has no place in any space."
House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, had declined comment on the issue earlier, saying simply Bickford had apologized. She also said she was disappointed the Legislative Council was being used as platform to punish Bickford by publicly shaming him when a human resources investigation was already underway.
But Dillingham also said when it came to Bickford's behavior, "I don't have any excuses, nor will I make any for them."