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Windsor requests grand jury involvement as Foppoli lashes out at recall effort

Windsor officials formally requested a grand jury investigation Thursday of Mayor Dominic Foppoli, advancing a long shot bid to oust the embattled city leader accused by at least seven women of sexual assault and abuse.

The public allegations, which span from 2003 to 2020 — including the last six years when Foppoli has served on the Town Council — include “willful or corrupt misconduct in office,” Windsor Town Manager Ken MacNab said in a statement.

Civil grand juries can use that threshold to call for a trial to remove a local elected official from their post. The process is extremely rare, and legal experts say it’s an uphill battle.

Until now, it wasn’t clear if Windsor Town Hall would argue that Foppoli’s alleged behavior was carried out as part of his formal duties. MacNab offered an answer on Thursday.

“The allegations against At-large Mayor Foppoli relate to behavior both outside his official duties as Mayor and conduct alleged to have occurred while the Mayor was acting in his official capacity,” MacNab said in his statement.

Foppoli, meanwhile, began his public defense against a recall campaign, denouncing the organizers behind an effort that appears to have broad popular support as “a small group of obstructive individuals.”

Those behind the United Residents to Recall Foppoli campaign, he said in a statement Wednesday, were committed to “destroying a local leader.”

“They do not have Windsor’s best interests in mind,” Foppoli said. “They seek to advance their own leadership by any means necessary including tearing me down with false allegations.”

The pair of public salvos — Windsor’s bid for a grand jury investigation and Foppoli’s denunciation of the recall effort — were the latest developments in a scandal that has engulfed Foppoli and clouded Windsor since four women came forward in the San Francisco Chronicle last month to say they had been sexually assaulted and abused by Foppoli.

The letter sent Thursday by Windsor officials to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office served as the town’s latest official bid to push Foppoli from office. The council previously demanded his resignation in a charged April 14 meeting over which Foppoli partly presided.

Legal experts have said the grand jury option faces uncertain results and a long timeline, although any recall election and criminal proceedings against Foppoli could be similarly protracted. Recall and felony conviction are the two clearest paths to remove an elected official from office in California.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has recused her office from investigating the sexual assault allegations against Foppoli. Her recusal came after Esther Lemus, a Windsor councilwoman and a deputy prosecutor in Ravitch’s office, became the sixth woman to publicly accuse Foppoli of sexual assault.

Ravitch has asked Windsor officials to redirect the grand jury request to the California Attorney General’s Office, a spokesperson for her office said Thursday.

The state Attorney General’s Office and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office are leading the criminal investigation into Foppoli.

Foppoli has proclaimed his innocence in the face of the allegations and remained defiant amid mounting calls for his resignation. Those calls have been widespread, including most elected officials in Sonoma County and local lawmakers joining in from Washington, D.C. and Sacramento.

Foppoli said the recall is politically motivated and that its origins predated the allegations against him. “This group and their website was formed the week I was elected Mayor, long before any of the current accusations were made,” he wrote in the statement. The campaign’s leaders “only care about accomplishing their objective of destroying a local leader who they feel threatens their ’vision’ for our region.”

A Recall Dominic Foppoli page on Facebook did predate the San Francisco Chronicle’s initial April 8 report, featuring a single post dedicated to past criticism over the mayor’s treatment of local businesses, The Press Democrat previously reported. That post has been taken down and the page has turned to calls for Foppoli’s removal in light of the sexual assault allegations.

Windsor Town Clerk Maria De La O declared that the recall campaign had successfully filed the paperwork needed to begin the effort on April 29. Leaders of the campaign have said they hope to begin gathering signatures by the middle of this month.

“The disgraced Mayor needs to be removed and it doesn’t matter how,” Willow Ramsey, co-chair of the recall campaign, said in a text message. “He’s clearly out of touch with what Windsor wants, evidenced by nearly 6 hours of public testimony from Windsor residents overwhelmingly calling for his resignation, and our growing list of 1,200 recall advocates and volunteers. Our Recall Foppoli efforts will prevail if he continues to resist.”

Dilemma for a grand jury

Whether the alleged sexual assaults, or other misconduct as yet unknown to the public, occurred while Foppoli was carrying out his official duties as mayor would be key in a grand jury proceeding, legal experts said in interviews.

MacNab did not respond to a request for comment. It was not clear which allegations the town considered to have occurred while Foppoli was acting in his official capacity.

Government Code section 3060 outlines the process in which a civil grand jury can be employed to investigate an elected official and initiate a court proceeding to remove them from office. Eligible offenses include “willful or corrupt misconduct in office.” The procedure applies to officials at the county and city levels.

Every county in California has a standing civil grand jury. The bodies conduct their proceedings in secret and have wide latitude to conduct civil investigations. When the juries investigate wrongdoing by public officials, the standard of evidence is lower than what would be needed for a criminal conviction.

Juries don’t remove an elected official from office themselves, but can call in writing for removal. The case would then be prosecuted in open court in a jury trial that would consider the merits of the grand jury’s stance. In that trial, Foppoli would have the right to legal representation.

Even if there was a route forward, the process could take six months or more, legal experts say.

“I don’t want anybody to think that is something that could happen in a few weeks and lo and behold there’s an accusation” from a civil grand jury, said Karen Jahr, a past president and current official of the California Grand Jurors’ Association.

See letter from Windsor Town Manager Ken MacNab here:

Press Release - Town of Windsor Requests Grand Jury Investigation of Mayor (Distributed 21-05-06).pdf

See statement from Mayor Dominic Foppoli here:

At-large Mayor Foppoli Answer to Recall Effort Allegations 05-05-21.pdf

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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