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State watchdog opens investigation into Dominic Foppoli as former rival alleges political misconduct

California’s campaign finance watchdog has opened an investigation into former Windsor mayor Dominic Foppoli’s political spending just as the town’s newest council member said Foppoli sought to buy her exit from the 2020 mayoral campaign with donations to charities of her choice and an offer to help secure her a government appointment.

Rosa Reynoza said Foppoli sought to entice her out of last year’s competitive field by offering to open up his campaign war chest for the donations if she did not run.

The offer came in a late June 2020 meeting at a coffee shop across from the Town Green, Reynoza said in an interview Thursday with The Press Democrat.

Foppoli, a two-term councilman who was the appointed mayor at the time, cited his prodigious campaign fundraising and ability to spend heavily on Windsor’s inaugural mayoral campaign as he sought to muscle Reynoza out of the race, Reynoza said.

Foppoli told her she “didn’t have a chance to win because of how much he was going to spend,” she said. (He would go on to amass more than $91,000 for the campaign, far eclipsing all other candidates combined).

Foppoli also offered to help Reynoza secure an appointment on a government board or commission, she said.

Foppoli did not respond Thursday to a request for comment about the new state investigation or the meeting described by Reynoza.

A few days after the meeting, Reynoza turned down both offers she alleged came from Foppoli, sharing a text message that she said showed her response to him at the time.

“After much thought I have decided to continue on my path to run and let the voters decide on Nov. 3rd,” she wrote to Foppoli after the meeting, according to a screenshot of the July 3, 2020 text that she provided The Press Democrat.

Reynoza spoke to one person about the meeting, who suggested she should consult a lawyer, Reynoza said, but she never did so. Her account would be her word against Foppoli’s, she said, and she wasn’t certain there was anything illegal about the offer.

Donating campaign funds to most charities is legal, according to California campaign finance expert Bob Stern, who helped write state law on the subject. Nor is it illegal for one politician to try and muscle another out of a race by citing a larger war chest, he said.

“What’s not legitimate in my mind is to give a (financial) inducement,” to someone to drop out of a race, Stern said. He did not know if offering a commission appointment would qualify as such an inducement.

Reynoza, 49, came in second to Foppoli, losing by 1,600 votes in the November 2020 election, where he spent about $90,000 compared to her $12,200. Six months later, Reynoza, a four-time candidate for Windsor office, was elected in May to the council in a special contest to fill the seat left vacant after Foppoli’s mayoral win.

Foppoli is now two weeks out from his resignation as mayor and facing criminal investigations into public allegations of sexual assault, abuse and misconduct made against him by nine women.

At the same time, scrutiny is mounting over his past campaign spending and fundraising — the subject of an anonymous complaint last month to the state’s political watchdog alleging Foppoli used campaign cash for personal expenditures.

That agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, announced Thursday that it has opened an investigation into the allegations raised in the complaint.

And the Windsor Town Council, in an emotional hearing Wednesday focused on choosing Foppoli’s replacement, announced it is exploring campaign finance restrictions for future races as it confronts mistrust from residents.

Foppoli, 39, has denied the sexual assault and misconduct accusations made against him and said all his campaign spending was above board.

The Fair Political Practices Commission wrote Foppoli on Tuesday to inform him its enforcement division had opened an investigation “regarding your committee’s potential violations” of campaign finance law.

The division will investigate the contents of an anonymous April 26 complaint made with the agency about Foppoli’s spending and fundraising.

Foppoli previously told The Press Democrat he had responded to the complaint with a “detailed response with receipts down to the penny for every item.” All his spending was “completely legal, allowable, and fair,” Foppoli wrote in a May 28 email. He has declined so far to share that response and state officials have declined to confirm they had received one from him.

Investigators have not reached any conclusions, Angela Brereton, the chief of the commission’s enforcement division, wrote to Foppoli, but may be contacting him to “discuss the matter.”

The anonymous complaint urged investigators to scrutinize about $12,200 in campaign spending by Foppoli across several election cycles. Among them was the $584 liquor bill for a 2019 bash Foppoli has since described as a combined campaign event and 37th birthday party. The complaint also took issue with two flights in 2019 and payments and reimbursements made to a former girlfriend as well as an executive at his family’s Christopher Creek Winery who served as his campaign treasurer.

“Clearly there’s something there because they don’t open investigations lightly,” said Stern, referring to the case opened by the agency.

With limited resources, the commission is sometimes reluctant to investigate lower level complaints, Stern said. “They have to think there’s something serious if they’re going to look into it,” he said. Stern 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.

The complaint against Foppoli also raised concerns about large donations to his campaigns from developers with interests in the town. Throughout his council tenure he was consistently the top fundraiser in Windsor elections, starting with his first successful run for council in 2014. The son of a wealthy local wine family, he was reelected in 2018 and then served two years as the appointed mayor before winning the town’s first contest for an at-large mayor’s seat in 2020.

The FPPC inquiry is the third investigation Foppoli now faces.

He is the subject of a pair of criminal investigations — one in Sonoma County and one in Palm Beach, Florida — into sexual assault allegations made against him.

The Windsor Town Council on Wednesday appointed Salmon, 70, the vice mayor and a councilman since 1994, to fill the vacant mayor’s post.

Salmon’s selection came in the face of widespread calls from constituents for Reynoza to be named mayor. As a first-time office holder, she was touted by supporters as the leader needed in Windsor, where council incumbents have come under fire for the town’s handling of two prior warnings about Foppoli’s behavior toward women.

In 2017 and again in 2020, emails to Windsor town council members alleged sexual misconduct by Foppoli. A 2017 email sent to then-mayor Deb Fudge alleged Foppoli had behaved in a predatory way toward female guests at his winery in 2013. The writer of that email told the San Francisco Chronicle in April that Foppoli sexually assaulted her during that encounter.

In 2017, after receiving that woman’s warning, Fudge and other council members denied Foppoli his first opportunity at the mayor’s post, but they never made their concerns public. A year later, the council appointed Foppoli mayor and reappointed him in late 2019, after switching to a district-based election system for council seats, including a directly elected mayor.

Then, in a 2020 email sent to city officials and shared with the town council, a Windsor resident alleged that Foppoli had been accused of rape by “multiple women.”

After receiving that email, Windsor officials provided both warnings to the Windsor Police Department, which is staffed by deputies from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Law enforcement did not open an investigation. Councilman Sam Salmon and Fudge are the two incumbents who have been on the council through the whole period.

Esther Lemus, herself a Foppoli accuser, joined the council in 2018 and backed his mayoral run in 2020, the same year she alleged Foppoli used alcohol and drugs in two encounters to facilitate sex without her consent.

Windsor residents speaking at Wednesday’s town council meeting lumped concerns about big money in small town politics into their frustration over the Foppoli scandal. Foppoli received tens of thousands of dollars from real estate developers with interest in the town, and those big war chests helped keep him in power while he committed his alleged misdeeds, critics said.

“Our town is essentially being purchased,” a Windsor resident who introduced himself as Ty Justice said during the meeting.

The council is preparing to take up ordinances to limit campaign donations, Salmon said Thursday.

In such a climate, Reynoza, who ran small-dollar campaigns and tangled with the town’s more established politicians, has emerged as a grassroots reform candidate, at least for her political base.

She touched on her outsider status in brief remarks after her swearing in Wednesday. Each election cycle where she entered — in 2016, in 2018 and in 2020 — she was discouraged from running, she said.

She alluded in those public remarks to the conversation with Foppoli but did not name him.

“In 2020 I was told ‘Don’t run, Rosa, I’m going to outspend you,’” she told the council.

Salmon had not heard about Foppoli’s alleged political offers to Reynoza before Wednesday’s meeting, he told The Press Democrat. But he was not surprised by the new claims, he said.

“Dominic was a dealmaker,” 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 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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