Speaker Mattiello talks with woman about bullying claim against Rep. Williams

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island’s House speaker has reached out to a cosmetology professional to discuss her complaint about how she was treated following a House committee hearing on a hair-braiding bill, as a Senate panel prepares to hear testimony on the same measure.

Jackie Pace, a licensed cosmetology instructor, is one of four people who told Target 12 they saw state Rep. Anastasia Williams – the sponsor of the House bill – berate and make contact with a woman who had testified against the bill on Tuesday.

Williams, D-Providence, denied that anything happened after the hearing, and Mike Stenhouse, an activist who testified in favor of the measure, insisted “there was no contact.” But Stenhouse acknowledged he had to step in between two groups who were having a heated discussion and moving toward each other in the hallway.

Pace and East Providence cosmetology instructor Debra Bjorklund said they saw Williams make contact with cosmetology school director Mindy Mosca. They also said Williams made a motion sliding her hand across her throat and said, “You’re done,” to Mosca and at least one other person.

Larry Berman, spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said the speaker received voicemail messages from Bjorklund and Pace, and talked with Mosca on the phone.

“They had a nice conversation and she indicated she would be returning to the State House on Thursday to testify on the Senate version of the bill,” Berman said. “Speaker Mattiello invited her to come to his office so they could discuss what took place at the House hearing.”

Berman said Mattiello “will follow up as appropriate” after the meeting.

Mosca said she does not want to comment on the incident at this time.

While Bjorklund and two others who asked not to be identified called the contact a push, Pace characterized it as an “aggressive poke” that was uncalled for and inappropriate.

“It was pretty much like an aggressive poke. And she didn’t have the right to do that,” Pace said Thursday. “It was intimidating and just not right.”

Pace was back at the State House Thursday to testify against the Senate version of the bill.

“You don’t go to a hearing feeling like you can’t speak your piece,” Pace said, adding that she was still upset about the incident. “[Williams] shouldn’t act that way just because someone disagrees with her.”

Williams has not responded to requests for comment beyond an email she sent earlier this week denying tha anything happened.

“I would have been carried out of the State House to jail or at the minimum police would have been called, not the media,” Williams said.

Williams proposed the hair-braiding measure last year, saying it would help low-income residents potentially make a living without paying licensing fees. She argued braiding hair is a tradition in certain communities that does not require extensive training or the use of chemicals.

The bill passed the House by a unanimous vote in 2017 but stalled in the Senate.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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