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As investigation into Mayor Dominic Foppoli advances, authorities and Windsor officials scrutinized

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or online.rainn.org

It has been more than a week since law enforcement opened a criminal investigation into Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli after at least six women publicly accused him sexual assault and abuse in encounters spanning from 2003 to last year.

The new probe launched by Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick includes a team of five detectives and a sergeant and its scope includes all reported allegations, including those documented in recent news stories, he said.

The department is working with the state Attorney General’s Office, which would handle any prosecution.

Essick declined to give a timeline but said the public should trust his investigators to be thorough. “I realize that the public has a significant interest in this case, as they should,” he said.

“From an investigation quality standpoint, I want to make sure that we are thorough, accurate and complete,” he said.

Yet as the the new investigation advances, local law enforcement is operating under even greater scrutiny because of past, public warnings about Foppoli’s behavior and how they were handed by authorities and fellow elected officials at the time.

The pressure ranges from those who’ve said that local agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office, could not be trusted to pursue an aggressive investigation, to others who claimed in an explosive Wednesday meeting that Windsor town officials and fellow council members were “complicit” in Foppoli’s alleged behavior.

Some of those doubts and public criticism stem from the official response to two prior warnings about Foppoli in emails to Windsor Town Hall. One came in 2017 alleging predatory behavior toward female guests and employees at his winery. The other came in February 2020 and described the mayor as accused of rape by multiple women.

Both warnings were dealt with behind closed doors. And neither had any lasting consequence for the well-connected vintner’s rise in political power.

The 2020 email, addressed to Windsor Town Manager Ken MacNab, said that “The people of Windsor do not want a 4 year term Mayor, especially Dominic who I have learned recently has been accused of rape by more than one women.”

Only upon receiving that email did MacNab provide both written warnings to Windsor Police Chief Ruben Martinez, the town disclosed for the first time on Tuesday. Martinez reviewed them along with a Sheriff’s Office investigator specializing in sexual assault. But no investigator with either the police department or the Sheriff’s Office reached out to the author of that email to find out what she knew.

Martinez and sheriff’s office investigator “reviewed the letter and I think they just left it at that,” Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle said in an interview. Windsor contracts out with the sheriff for policing, so the chief is also an employee of the Sheriff’s Office.

The handling of that warning raised questions this past week for Karlene Navarro, who as director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach has oversight responsibilities over a range of Sheriff’s Office operations.

The message in the 2020 email was “a broad, but very serious allegation,” Navarro wrote in an email.

“I think the best practice would have been for law enforcement to give the emailer a call to ask her about the information on which she was basing her statement,” Navarro wrote. “If she had personal knowledge of a rape or could connect law enforcement to a rape victim or witness, it should have been investigated.”

At Wednesday’s town meeting, Martinez said the email was “political in nature.” It was written opposing Foppoli’s bid for another stint as mayor and listed other grievances against him unrelated to rape or sexual assault. The email’s author had merely “heard” about rape accusations, Martinez said, emphasizing “heard” by repeating it twice —though the email didn’t use that verb.

“If the author would have stated she was a victim of a sexual assault or knew the victim of sexual assault or have specific details of a sexual assault,” Martinez said, “we would have reached out to her, or any potential victims, to start an investigation. All we had was hearsay.”

When MacNab delivered the 2020 warning to law enforcement, he also provided for the first time the previous warning the City Council had received in 2017, before his tenure as city manager. That email had been addressed to Councilwoman Deb Fudge and was shared with the entire council as well as the town attorney and MacNab’s predecessor. In it, a woman alleged in detail how during a 2013 stay with seven friends at a guest home at Foppoli’s Christopher Creek Winery, Foppoli acted in a “predatory” way.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or online.rainn.org

Foppoli, still then a private citizen, crashed a dinner with the guests, pressured two of his female employees to take off their underwear and wear blanket togas, tried to take off a guest’s bathing suit and slyly refilled wine glasses without the women’s permission, the email alleged.

Again, law enforcement did not contact the author of that email. Its allegations, even if proven, were at best misdemeanor charges — sexual battery, perhaps, Naugle said in the interview and Martinez said in the public meeting. The statute of limitations for such charges would have expired, they said.

In 2017, when MacNab said town officials reached out to the email’s author, she had said she did not want to press charges or see her story passed to law enforcement. The writer remained anonymous, her name redacted by Windsor in public records. But with her email she sought to warn town officials about Foppoli as he rose in political power after first winning office in 2014.

“I cannot stay silent when a molester rises in social and political rank,” she said.

Her missive barely blunted that rise. In late 2017, the town’s other council members confronted Foppoli, then vice mayor, behind closed doors and decided he would not become mayor for the following year, several incumbents and former representatives told The Press Democrat.

In public, though, they said nothing about the warning. The day he was passed over for mayor in December 2017, Foppoli gave a speech where he said charitable work and campaigning for reelection were occupying his time. He asked, therefore, that the council defer his appointment as mayor for a year.

In fact, his public comments were a smokescreen, council members said.

“He knew that we weren’t going to appoint him mayor,” Bruce Okrepkie, who was on the council at the time, said in an interview.

But a slightly different council did appoint Foppoli mayor in 2018, and he has held the seat since, through a contentious reappointment in 2019 and through his victory in the town’s inaugural direct election for mayor last year.

On Friday, Foppoli, who has proclaimed his innocence amid the public allegations, said he would nevertheless “step back” from the day-to-day work as mayor and no longer run Town Council meetings, a pivot made just two days after Wednesday’s meeting filled with scathing denunciations and emotionally raw testimony from sexual assault survivors. He did not, however, resign.

“Through prayer and in speaking with residents over the course of this week, it has become clear to me that the Town Council will not function at the level expected by its citizens if I remain actively involved, given the strong reaction to the allegations against me,” he wrote.

“Though I maintain full innocence under the law, I have decided to step back from an active role as Mayor until the formal investigation is complete. I do not want my presence or participation to create a distraction or cause any additional hurt for our residents.”

Foppoli’s announcement was the latest turn in a scandal that erupted after the San Francisco Chronicle on April 8 published its investigation detailing allegations of four women who say Foppoli sexual assaulted them.

Those women have since been joined by at least two more publicly, including Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus, who shared her experience with the Sheriff’s Office the day the article published, and then made it public in an April 10 interview with The Press Democrat.

Essick, who was a captain in the Sheriff’s Office when he was elected to the top job in 2018, said word of the two emails warning of Foppoli’s behavior had never reached him before the Chronicle published its account.

At least one critic at Wednesday’s meeting suggested that the Sheriff Office should sideline itself from the investigation.

Jerry Threet, an appointed member of the county’ Commission of Human Rights, said he had heard that Essick and Foppoli were “good friends” and that therefore “the sheriff's office should not have any role in this investigation which should be entirely conducted by the state attorney general,” Threet said.

Threet, who publicly clashed with Essick in Threet’s previous role as the county’s law enforcement watchdog, cited “multiple sources” as he made his claim Wednesday, and he made a similar reference in a follow-up interview, but declined to provide names.

Essick strongly rejected the assertion.

“Unequivocally, I am not friends with Dominic Foppoli,” he said. He said he had interacted with the mayor only on a professional level as elected officials. He said he had never visited the mayor’s home and did not socialize with him.

“I can count on one hand how many times I’ve talked to him,” Essick said. “It’s not many.”

Foppoli did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment for this story on Friday.

Navarro, the law enforcement oversight agency director, said there was no indication of any outward conflict of interest in the case, but that the agency was paying attention.

“IOLERO is monitoring this situation closely,” Navarro wrote. “If IOLERO receives evidence, whether from a citizen complaint or other source, that indicates there is a conflict of interest and the sheriff's office should not be investigating the numerous sexual assault allegations against Foppoli, IOLERO will investigate the matter.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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