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Security startup with ties to Dominic Foppoli to fold in wake of sexual assault scandal; at least 40 jobs lost

After COVID-19 public heath orders shut down his small martial arts academy, Orlando Banuelos took a job in mid-January as a guard for a new Santa Rosa-based company called Whitestar Security Group.

With prior security experience, Banuelos quickly rose to supervisor, splitting his shifts between the Sebastopol Inn and Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa — hotels that Sonoma County had purchased and converted to homeless housing during the pandemic.

The pay was good and Banuelos, 29, connected with both the people he was protecting and the company he worked for.

“We did our job, we did it to the best of our ability, and we were getting thanked on a daily basis,” he said.

Banuelos had reason to be optimistic about his new gig. Less than a year old, Whitestar Security Group was growing rapidly under two young, well-connected business partners — Clayton Taylor and Brandon Rojas.

One of their partners was Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli, an investor striking into new territory outside the wine and beer industries he has long operated in. Through relationships with the county’s nonprofit homeless service providers, the new company quickly secured contracts in an increasingly lucrative California sector , as the state directed hundreds of millions of dollars towards local governments to house at-risk homeless people. Sonoma County and Santa Rosa spent over $30 million in 2020 on homeless housing, and many of their new sites needed full-time security.

But the prospects for Whitestar Security Group have all but ended amid the scandal that has engulfed Foppoli after eight women leveled public allegations of sexual assault, abuse or misconduct. Foppoli has refused to step down despite widespread calls for his resignation. He faces threat of a recall election and is under investigation by local and state authorities.

The fallout for Whitestar has included canceled contracts, severed business ties among the partners and at least 40 layoffs since early April.

Banuelos was one of those who lost his job.

“Everybody kept saying it was nothing we did wrong,” Banuelos said. “If we did nothing wrong then why is everybody outside that Foppoli situation being affected?”

Whitestar Security is now folding in its current form.

Taylor says the company lost as much as 70% of its business after the Foppoli scandal broke, particularly through the loss of contracts with the county and Catholic Charities, the region’s dominant homeless service provider. The Catholic Charities’ deal alone was for more than $500,000, according to the nonprofit.

A county contract for guarding Hotel Azura and Sebastopol Inn from late November until April 30, 2021, was for up to $660,900, according to a document obtained through a public records request.

Both of those deals have been scuttled.

“Because of what Dominic did and how Dominic handled this we lost everything,” Taylor said. He is working to rebuild and rebrand the business while retaining some employees from a workforce that once numbered up to 80.

“The people who are hurt here are not Dominic,” he said. "It’s really frustrating and disheartening to me that because of the actions of somebody who had no say, that none of my employees knew, everybody that just signed up to be treated well and paid well and turn this into a career is now suffering.“

Whitestar Security is one casualty of the fallout that has rocked Foppoli’s business and political world in the weeks since he was accused of sexual assault by four women in an April 8 San Francisco Chronicle story. Business partners and former political allies have scrambled to distance themselves from the disgraced mayor as he has been ousted from government posts, booted from civic groups and even stripped of his roles in his family’s Christopher Creek Winery.

The ripples have hit other elected officials, as well, including Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts. As executive director of St. Vincent De Paul of Sonoma County, another local homeless services provider, he had contracted with Whitestar Security for guards at Los Guilicos Village, the county’s 60-unit managed homeless site near Oakmont.

Tibbetts also briefly served alongside Foppoli on the board of Whitestar Security Group. He resigned just days before the Chronicle published its initial story.

“I received no income from that company and so I don’t believe there is a conflict of interest until you receive any income,” Tibbetts said in an interview.

Tale of two Whitestars

At the company’s outset in May 2020, Foppoli was one of six partners and one of three investors in Whitestar Security Group, according to Taylor.

Taylor is a graduate of Sonoma State University who previously worked for other security companies and for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, according to a brief biography on Whitestar Security’s website.

A lawyer named Brian Noble introduced Taylor to Foppoli, paving the way for his involvement, Taylor said. Noble served as treasurer for Foppoli’s 2018 council campaign and as campaign manager in his first successful run for town office in 2014, according to past news reports and campaign finance statements.

A third investor was Mark Adams, a longtime security professional with a background in law enforcement. Since 2004, Adams has run a Santa Rosa-based company called Whitestar Group that focused on workplace investigations for government agencies.

Adams, after being approached twice by Taylor, invested in the new company and was named CEO in exchange for providing the new firm the use of his Private Patrol Operators license — a critical hurdle for entering the security industry.

For ease of licensing, the new company was called Whitestar Security Group, tying Adams’ 17-year-old brand to a new company and ultimately to Foppoli.

The other partners in Whitestar Security Group were Taylor, Rojas and Elisa Lawson, the chief financial officer of Christopher Creek Winery.

Inking deals

Before joining Whitestar, Rojas was the housing director at St. Vincent De Paul. He had begun at the nonprofit as a homeless shelter employee working the graveyard shift, he said.

According to a timeline provided by Tibbetts, the Santa Rosa councilman and St. Vincent chief, Rojas left the nonprofit in March 2020 to co-found the security firm with Taylor soon afterward. In an interview, Rojas said he stepped down from St. Vincent before Taylor approached him about the venture.

On April 30, 2020, St. Vincent De Paul began looking for a new security company. The nonprofit would end up selecting Whitestar Security Group in a competitive process with one other bidder, according to Tibbetts.

“Whitestar was selected, because they were the cheapest response SVDP received, and our organization also trusted Brandon and Clayton to provide a quality service,” Tibbetts said in a statement.

The contract was worth around $288,000, Tibbetts said. The county has paid St. Vincent De Paul about $2.5 million to run Los Guilicos Village, Tibbetts said in March.

Rojas and Taylor targeted the homelessness services sector because they had seen firsthand the need for higher level security services where guards received training in trauma-informed care, they said. They did not believe Rojas’ connections gave them an unethical advantage, they said.

“From the outside it may look like that, but that was never our intentions,” Rojas said. “It was providing a service to nonprofits and taking care of people who had distrust of authority.”

Whitestar also won a number of contracts in the cannabis industry, Taylor said.

Catholic Charities signed a contract with Whitestar Security Group on May 7, 2020, that would ultimately be worth more than $500,000. At the time the homeless provider, which manages Santa Rosa’s homeless outreach and its largest shelter, was rushing to set up pandemic response programs at two hotels bought by the county and converted to residences for homeless people at high risk of COVID-19 complications.

Seven months later, in November, the firm secured contracts with the county to provide protection at COVID-19 testing sites. That relationship later expanded into security at the hotels used to house the homeless, Taylor said.

Catholic Charities Chief Program Officer Jennielynn Holmes, a veteran official within local homeless service circles, said she had positive reviews of both the young entrepreneurs — Taylor and Rojas — and their employees’ security.

“The actual people on the line ... they got along well with our staff and worked hard to handle the uniqueness of the people that we served,” she said.

But the contract was cut short in April. When the Foppoli story broke and nonprofit officials learned the Windsor mayor was an investor in the security firm they’d hired, Catholic Charities felt it had no choice but to sever ties, Holmes said.

“As soon as we found out about Dominic’s involvement we made the move,” she said.

The county would soon end its relationship with the company, as well.

Business disputes among partners

Foppoli had caused problems for the business even before he became the center of a countywide scandal, according to Taylor and Adams.

Throughout 2020 and into this year, Foppoli at times sought to exert more control over the business than a passive investor should, both Adams and Taylor said. He pushed for board meetings to be held at Christopher Creek Winery, where wine flowed and people smoked cigars during meetings, Taylor and Adams recalled.

“We were coming off 80-hour weeks and we were told to come to the winery and smoke cigars and talk about business,” Taylor recalled, speaking of himself and Rojas, who were working to grow the company.

“I’m sitting there trying to keep minutes and make motions and follow Roberts Rules,” Taylor said, referring to the widely followed governing procedures for meetings.

Foppoli seemed more interested in profit and cachet than building a business, Rojas and Taylor said. He even tried to convince Taylor to have a company holiday party at Christopher Creek in December 2020, a month when COVID-19 was surging in the county, Taylor said.

Taylor and Adams had other disagreements between them, but those were augmented by the troubles with the board, both men said.

Adams sold his shares in Whitestar Security Group in late November 2020. He gave the company until May 31 to continue using the Whitestar name and his security license.

Councilman joins board

In early 2021, the connections between St. Vincent De Paul, its security provider and people in political power became more direct. In late January, Rojas left Sonoma County to begin officer candidate school for the U.S. Navy — a lifelong goal, he said.

The beginning of his training came with strictly limited cellphone access, Rojas said. Looking for someone to manage his Whitestar Security Group shares, he turned to his old roommate, Tibbetts, to serve as his proxy vote.

To manage the shares and attend meetings, Tibbetts would be compensated for his time with a 1% share in the company, he and Rojas both said. The agreed amount came to around $2,500 a year, Tibbetts said. Tibbetts stressed that he ultimately never collected any money from the company.

Tibbetts said he had cleared his involvement with board officials overseeing St. Vincent. He provided The Press Democrat with emails between himself and Ron Plasse, the board president, in which he discussed the possible conflict of interest. Tibbetts and Plasse agreed it would be allowable for him to serve on the Whitestar Security Group board.

Tibbetts in fact said he was more worried about his role on the Santa Rosa City Council and whether there would be a conflict of interest since Santa Rosa contracts with Catholic Charities for homeless services. Until recently, Catholic Charities had contracted with Whitestar Security for protection at the same sites.

Tibbetts joined the board at the end of February. He would ultimately serve for less than two months.

After learning about the forthcoming Chronicle story about Foppoli, Tibbetts sought to distance himself from the Windsor mayor and Whitestar Security. On April 6, two days before the story, he resigned from the board.

The two politicians had few ties outside the business, Tibbetts said, noting that he voted against Foppoli’s recent — and quickly rescinded — appointment to the Golden Gate Bridge Transportation District.

“I attended only one party at his home in 2017 that was for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which had roughly 150 attendees and many local elected officials,” Tibbetts wrote in a statement. “He also attended my Open House Christmas party in 2017 that was attended by roughly 80 people, including many local elected officials.”

“At neither event did I witness anything untoward,” he said.

Fallout upends security business

Like others in Foppoli’s orbit, Adams had caught wind of a forthcoming damaging news report about Foppoli and took steps to reclaim his longtime brand. On March 26, he registered yet a third company, Whitestar Protection Group.

When the story broke, he contacted Taylor through a lawyer and brokered a deal that would return his security license at the end of April. He also sought to take on new partners.

One was a Santa Rosa attorney named Chris Krankemann. Adams also extended offers to Tibbetts and Rob Muelrath, a well-connected Santa Rosa political consultant who has worked with a wide range of county and city politicians.

Reaching out to Tibbetts was just a smart business decision, Adams said. Tibbetts is “one of the foremost experts in dealing with homelessness in Sonoma County,” he said. Neither Tibbetts nor Muelrath has accepted a board position yet, Adams said.

Tibbetts is considering the offer and whether he can accept it, he said.

Going forward, Adams said he is seeking to distance the Whitestar name from Foppoli as much as possible, he said.

“I’m really worried,” he said. “For (him) to have a potential negative impact on a business that I’ve successfully operated for 17 years is mind-boggling to me.”

County backs out, partners regroup

Sonoma County ended its relationship with Whitestar Security Group when their contract expired April 30. The county already intended to put out bids for a new service provider, Department of Health Services Interim Director Tina Rivera said in a statement that did not cite Foppoli.

But Adams and Taylor both believe the mayor’s role in the company drove the county’s decision. Taylor had provided an alternative to keep crews at work at the sites during a transition, he said, but the county rejected it.

“Whether it was the county trying to cut bait or us losing the license it was because of what Dominic did and how Dominic handled this,” Taylor said. “We lost everything.”

Taylor is scrambling to save as many contracts as he can, and find new ones, in order to put his employees back to work. Whitestar Security Group will soon cease to exist as a company and he is partnering with another firm at the moment, he said.

Banuelos, the former martial arts instructor, worked at one of the county-run sites. His last day on the job was April 30, he said. Since then, he’s received just a few shifts with the company’s remaining clients.

Over his last few hours at a job, he watched a new company set up shop and brushed off offers to recruit him, he said. Banuelos is giving Taylor a chance to line up new contracts and put him back to work.

“That just goes to show how much I back these guys how much I care about them,” he said.

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 Rosa, its policy and politics, crime and its economy affect the lives of North Bay residents both 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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