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State political watchdog weighing allegations of improper campaign spending by Dominic Foppoli

California’s political watchdog agency is weighing whether to investigate a complaint into past campaign spending by former Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli, including payments to a former girlfriend and to the finance chief of his family’s Healdsburg winery.

The anonymous April 26 complaint also called out spending on booze and airfare and urged investigators to scrutinize campaign contributions from developers, including $45,500 donated over six years by developer Bill Gallaher and his wife Cynthia, whose family has spent more than $2.6 million combined on a pair of local political campaigns in the past two years alone, records show.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission is reviewing the complaint to decide whether to open an investigation, Jay Wierenga, an agency spokesperson, said in an email on Tuesday.

A campaign finance expert and former general counsel for the FPPC said the spending highlighted in the complaint merited investigation, but that the document itself was not evidence of wrongdoing.

“There’s just not enough here that they could bring an [enforcement action] but there’s also enough here not to dismiss everything,” said Bob Stern, who served as FPPC’s general counsel in the 1970s and 1980s and went on to help write state law banning campaign expenditures for personal use.

“The fact that there’s so many instances here — I’d open something up,” Stern said.

The FPPC has had the complaint for a month and has not yet opened an investigation. Anonymous complaints carry less weight with the commission and do not have a set timeline for an agency response, according to Wierenga.

Foppoli did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

He formally resigned from his directly-elected mayor’s post on Monday amid a widening sexual assault scandal fueled by public claims made against him by nine women. The range of allegations, including rape, sexual abuse and misconduct, span from this spring to 2003. Foppoli was first elected to the council in 2014 and was re-elected in 2018. He won the town’s first direct election for mayor in 2020.

From 2018 to 2020, Foppoli reported payments to Amy Holter, a now-former girlfriend who has been cooperating with a local criminal investigation into the sexual assault allegations against him. Foppoli reported a $2,000 payment to Holter in 2018 to make a contribution to a nonprofit and a $250 payment for campaign work in 2019, the complaint notes.

Holter did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The complaint highlighted two flights, one with Southwest Airlines for $189.88 and another with Alaska Airlines for $308.30, both in 2019. The travel seemed at odds with the norms of political canvasing for local office, the complainant said.

“The town the candidate represents is less than 30,000 residents in a small geographical radius,” the author wrote, referring to Windsor. “Airline travel should be unnecessary for any purpose related to his campaign.”

The complaint also highlighted $584 spent at a local distillery, Sonoma Brothers Distilling, over six months in 2019 and $1,734 spent at Two Kings Wine Co. over six months in 2018.

Foppoli is listed as the CEO of Two Kings Wine on his 2020 financial disclosure form. The company, first registered with the state in 2012, was used to purchase Christopher Creek Winery, which Foppoli ran with his brother until the former mayor was accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Joe Foppoli asked his brother to remove himself from the winery business in the initial days of the scandal.

Altogether, the complaint highlighted $1,246 in payments Foppoli reported as either candidate travel, campaign supplies and meals.

The complaint also flagged payments to Elisa Lawson, who has served as Foppoli’s campaign treasurer. She is the chief financial officer for Christopher Creek Winery. She also has been a business partner in at least one shared venture, a security company that folded in the wake of the sexual assault allegations against Foppoli.

In January 2021, Foppoli paid Lawson $6,075 for her work as campaign treasurer. The complaint author suggested it was the an “oddly high payment amount.” Lawson did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

One veteran Sonoma County political consultant, Terry Price, said some of the expenditures highlighted in the complaint could indicate personal use of campaign funds.

“The FPPC is pretty strict on that. Although the amounts are not large, there can be no personal use,” Price said. "He's got some explaining to do to justify those expenditures."

The complaint author suggested the meal payments to Holter were suspect given that public health rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic restricted dining and social gatherings throughout that reported period. Foppoli has been criticized for being callous toward public health measures before, campaigning in person last year and traveling to Tennessee during the pandemic. He tested positive for the coronavirus following the trip.

The complaint highlighted more than $75,000 in contributions from donors associated with development projects before the Town Council. They included a $20,000 donation in January 2017 from a company behind the Vintage Oaks residential project near the Town Green. Partners in the project, including the principal investor, Hollywood-based developer Robert Bisno and his wife, altogether gave another $10,000.

The Gallahers were his biggest political benefactors in 2018 and 2020, according to campaign finance records, giving Foppoli $20,000 each cycle. Bill Gallaher is the CEO of Gallaher Homes and founder of Oakmont Senior Living and Poppy Bank.

In 2014, Foppoli received $13,750 combined from Gallaher, his family and Gallaher’s business associates, records show.

But until this year, Windsor, has not had any cap on individual donations to political candidates. (A state measure has changed that for upcoming elections.) And there is no state statute that prevents elected officeholders from participating in decisions that financially impact their political donors.

“It can be considered undue influence but it’s not illegal,“ said Stern, the campaign finance expert.

Vintage Oaks, on 18 acres just north of the Town Green, was approved in 2016 for 387 apartments but has yet to get underway.

Gallaher developed and opened in 2016 the Oliver’s Market shopping complex on the west side of Highway 101 near the Town Green.

More recently, in 2019, Gallaher joined development company Windsor-Jensen Land Co. to sue Windsor over its ban on use of natural gas in certain new residential units. Gallaher separately sued Santa Rosa over a similar measure.

While Santa Rosa has fought the lawsuit and won an initial court ruling, Windsor’s Town Council opted at the start of this year to back down and drop its ban.

Council members cited the high cost of defending the lawsuit. Some constituents called on on Foppoli to recuse himself because of the substantial donations Gallaher had made to his recent campaigns. He declined to do so.

Read the anonymous complaint to the FPPC

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

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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