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Birthday party or campaign event? For Dominic Foppoli, the personal and political mixed

On May 27, 2019, a collection of Sonoma County elected officials and civic leaders descended on Christopher Creek Winery outside of Healdsburg to celebrate and support then-Windsor Councilman Dominic Foppoli.

It was five days after his 37th birthday and the guests surrounding Foppoli included two county supervisors, three fellow incumbents of the Windsor Town Council, two council members from Healdsburg, several top administrators in local government and business people.

A photograph of the assembled crowd shows them gathered near the winery’s pool, Foppoli, kneeling in front next to a seated Supervisor James Gore.

Wine was served and also liquor from Sonoma Brothers Distilling Company, which was brought in to pour cocktails and spirits, paid for through Foppoli's campaign account, records show.

Foppoli’s campaign finance statement logged the $584.55 payment to the distillery for “meetings and appearances.”

Now, two years later, that payment is one of 10 campaign expenditures singled out for scrutiny in an anonymous complaint made last month to the state’s campaign finance watchdog about political spending by Foppoli. The author of the complaint said the liquor bill for the event was an unusual expenditure in a “non election year” and questioned the size of the payment.

The complaint also flagged payments for travel, checks made out to a then-girlfriend for charitable purposes and to an executive of Christopher Creek Winery for work on Foppoli’s campaign.

The now-disgraced former Windsor mayor is the subject of a pair of criminal investigations after nine women in recent weeks publicly alleged Foppoli sexually assaulted, abused or harassed them.

A formal case with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, where the complaint is under review, would only add to the cloud over Foppoli. He is the son of a wealthy local wine family who is now a pariah in his hometown, with many of those who endorsed him or socialized with him severing public ties.

But state investigators are likely to find that the party was a political, not a personal expense, said Bob Stern, a leading California campaign finance expert. Those who knew Foppoli during his rise in Sonoma County politics said he often blurred the line between the two.

“I’ve always used my birthday as an excuse to hold fundraisers or campaign kickoffs,” Foppoli said in a Friday email to The Press Democrat, which reported the complaint on Thursday. In 2019, he billed the party as a kickoff for his first at-large mayoral campaign.

The San Francisco Chronicle, in its story Thursday on the campaign finance complaint, quoted a manager for the Sonoma Brothers Distilling describing the gathering as nothing more than a birthday party and not a political event.

It was both, said Foppoli.

There was a fundraising table for his campaign, according to attendees. Some guests wore name tags with their office.

In one of two photographs he provided of the event, verified by The Press Democrat with other attendees, Foppoli posed in front of a campaign sign alongside Gore and three of his fellow Windsor incumbents: Deb Fudge, Bruce Okrepkie and Esther Lemus, all of whom would go on to endorse him in 2020.

Then-Windsor Councilman Dominic Foppoli at a May 27, 2019 party at his Chrisopher Creek Winery, with, from left, Supervisor James Gore, Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, Windsor Councilman Bruce Okrepkie and Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus. (Photo provided by Dominic Foppoli)
Then-Windsor Councilman Dominic Foppoli at a May 27, 2019 party at his Chrisopher Creek Winery, with, from left, Supervisor James Gore, Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, Windsor Councilman Bruce Okrepkie and Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus. (Photo provided by Dominic Foppoli)

Lemus is today one of Foppoli’s accusers, alleging Foppoli drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2020. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office is investigating those claims as part of one of two law enforcement investigations into the ex-mayor. The other investigation is in Florida, opened by the Palm Beach Police Department after former reality television star Farrah Abraham filed an April 2 police report accusing Foppoli of sexual battery. Foppoli announced his resignation May 21 as her allegations became public. He has maintained that he is innocent of all the reported accusations.

The second photograph showed the gathered, poolside crowd. Many of those current and former officeholders, like nearly every elected official in Sonoma County, had called on Foppoli to resign.

Attendees interviewed Friday said the party was a political event. Gore recalled giving a brief speech about Foppoli, who he said he’d endorsed after learning of Foppoli’s growing network of support and after working with him on policy issues.

Okrepkie recalled bringing a check for the candidate’s campaign. Foppoli reported a wave of donations from people photographed at the party. They showed up on his campaign statements as received on June 11, 2019.

“It wasn’t about his birthday, it was about running for office,” Fudge said Friday in an interview. “There were lots of political people,” she said.

They included then-Supervisor Shirlee Zane, former Windsor Councilman Mark Millan, David Hagele, Healdsburg’s mayor in 2019 and his successor, Leah Gold, who resigned in 2020. Among the other guests were Marcos Suarez of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Sonu Chandi, founder and president of the Chandi Hospitality Group and Sonoma County Human Services Assistant Director Oscar Chavez, who this year ran for Foppoli’s vacated council seat in the May 4 special election.

“The answer as to why it cost that much for (the distillery) to pour for the event should be evident in the 2nd picture,” Foppoli wrote in the email. “That’s a who’s who of the elected, political, and business leaders of the county, most of whom enjoyed the cocktails that night for the campaign kickoff.”

Kelly Matthies, the manager for Sonoma Brothers Distillery who was quoted Thursday by the Chronicle, declined to comment for this story, other than to say that what she told the Chronicle was “accurate.”

The Chronicle reported that the winery paid for the party, with a receipt that listed a “Christopher Creek Birthday Event.”

One longtime political expert said the party as described was likely a legitimate use of campaign funds. “Many politicians have birthday events that are political,” Stern said. He served as general counsel of the Fair Political Practices Commission in the 1970s and 1980s and went on to help write state law banning campaign expenditures for personal use.

Stern has called the broader list of concerns in the anonymous complaint worthy of investigation. That list includes allegations of improper spending on two airline flights and payments to Foppoli’s one-time girlfriend and an executive at his winery.

Foppoli called every expenditure appropriate. “I’ve already spoken with the FPPC and provided a detailed response with receipts down to the penny for every item on the list,” he wrote.

The FPPC declined to confirm that Foppoli had responded to the complaint. Correspondence that is “part of any potential case” is not releasable, said agency spokesperson Jay Wierenga. The agency has had the complaint against Foppoli for a month and has yet to decide whether to open an investigation.

Foppoli was free to provide his response to the press, Wierenga said. Foppoli did not do so by the end of the day Friday, saying he wanted to first get permission to share personal information of other individuals named in the complaint.

Using campaign cash to host a birthday party and political fundraiser was in keeping with the portrait of political networking that has emerged with Foppoli, said Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan.

“Someone who is upwardly mobile, who is young and ambitious is going to use all means at their disposal to leverage influence,” McCuan said.

“What you start to see in this particular case is an individual who is willing to blur the lines between personal and professional conduct over and over, and the campaign finance rules allow you to do that,” he said.

Along with spending, the anonymous complaint also questioned Foppoli’s intake of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from a number of developers with interests in Windsor, most notably Bill Gallaher, who along with family members, has spent heavily in county politics. He and his wife, Cynthia, have been Foppoli’s biggest political benefactors in the past three years, records show, and have donated $45,500 to his campaigns over the past six years.

Foppoli has touted that fundraising before and did so again in an email to The Press Democrat, singling out his 2020 mayoral campaign — he raised at least $91,000, according to records — as perhaps the most lucrative in the history of a city race in Sonoma County.

Until this year, Windsor did not have any limits on individual campaign contributions. Campaign finance experts, including Stern, say there’s nothing illegal in developers donating heavily to the local politicians who will often vote their projects up or down, even if the public doesn’t like it.

In early 2020, Foppoli declined to recuse himself when the Town Council voted to repeal its ban on natural gas in certain new residential developments, though some members of the public called on him to do so. Windsor dropped the ban in a deal to settle a lawsuit brought by Gallaher and another developer. Foppoli was not influenced by the developer’s donations, he said at the time, and there was no legal reason for him to recuse himself.

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

Andrew Graham

City of Santa Rosa, The Press Democrat 

As Sonoma County's largest city, Santa Rosas policy, politics, crime, and economy affect the lives of North Bay residents inside city limits and beyond in ways both obvious and unseen. I aim to document those impacts and give voice to city residents.

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