In wine country, a newspaper war brings down a mayoral ‘prince’ accused of sex abuse


The front-page shockers started in early April and simply stored coming: A younger mayor from the San Francisco Bay’s wine nation had been accused of sexually abusing and assaulting ladies. First there have been 4 accusers. Then 4 extra.

A former girlfriend accused Dominic Foppoli, the mayor of “pleasant, family-oriented” Windsor, of sexually abusing her. One other girl mentioned he compelled himself on her throughout an alcohol-fueled scorching tub social gathering at his household’s vineyard. A city council colleague mentioned she may need been drugged earlier than she was sodomized following a group clambake.

The headlines had been gorgeous, however they got here not from Sonoma County’s main media outlet, the Press Democrat, however from its big-city rival, the San Francisco Chronicle. The allegations, which led Foppoli to resign his mayorship on Could 21, have rocked the Pulitzer Prize-winning Press Democrat, after its prime editor made the extraordinary admission that the newspaper had did not pursue the story when a reporter introduced ahead the primary accusations, greater than two years in the past.

Reporter Alexandria Bordas left the Press Democrat in 2019 and finally took her data — together with two ladies’s allegations that that they had been sexually assaulted — to the Chronicle. The San Francisco paper quickly teamed Bordas with Cynthia Dizikes, a veteran investigative reporter, and the 2 journalists landed their blockbuster. Then got here a raft of damning follow-ups, a deluge of requires Foppoli’s resignation and, on the Press Democrat, soul looking out and recriminations in regards to the story that obtained away.

Alexandria Bordas, who broke the Foppoli story for the San Francisco Chronicle, after leaving the rival Santa Rosa paper.

(San Francisco Chronicle)

“Editors did not observe by means of and pursue the story. We failed our loyal readers and Windsor voters and residents,” Press Democrat Editor Richard Inexperienced wrote in an announcement to readers final month. “Much more vital, our determination to not completely examine these ladies’s accounts about alleged incidents involving Foppoli might have triggered extra private heartache, humiliation and bodily and emotional hurt for different ladies. … There isn’t a excuse for our failure to not push tougher; to not dig deeper.”

Within the weeks that adopted that April 9 declaration, the Press Democrat positioned its No. 2 editor, Ted Appel, on administrative depart. He quickly resigned, although he and the paper haven’t commented on the rationale for his departure. One other editor was demoted, and a 3rd issued a mea culpa for his fraught relations with reporters, because the workers vented its dismay in a Zoom name.

Each media outlet misses vital tales and has its share of in-house turmoil. However in a proud Santa Rosa newsroom that solely three years in the past gained a Pulitzer for its protection of the 2017 wine nation fires, the sense of concern stays excessive.

“Our failure to observe by means of on the story was egregious and inexcusable and was revamped and time and again,” mentioned one reporter, who requested to not be named, to protect relationships with colleagues. “Whilst this man ran [last November] in his first election for mayor, there was no try to observe up.”

Dominic Foppoli holds a bottle of wine.

Dominic Foppoli, proprietor of Christopher Creek Vineyard, resigned as mayor of Windsor amid sexual assault allegations.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Occasions)

A whole bunch of readers additionally complained, many speculating that Foppoli’s political and enterprise connections, because the son of longtime winemakers, may need made him immune from scrutiny. Heightening these questions, for some, was the truth that the Press Democrat has been owned since 2012 by a bunch of influential political and enterprise figures. Stated one reader on Fb: “There may be a lot work to do to regain belief.”

The outlines of the unique story had been sensational, notably given the identification of the accused. Foppoli had cultivated a persona because the “prince” of a household that claims winemaking heritage relationship again 600 years, to its roots in northern Italy. A younger Republican in a county dominated by Democrats, he first ran for state Meeting (unsuccessfully) when he was nonetheless a pupil at Dominican Faculty of California, in San Rafael. He hosted promotional movies with movie star chef Man Fieri. He competed on TV to be named California’s most eligible bachelor. Stated one acquaintance: “He was the enjoyable, linked man who was going locations.”

Foppoli, 39, spent weeks insisting he had finished nothing unsuitable and refusing to step down. He lastly resigned because the Chronicle ready to report on allegations from a ninth alleged sufferer. Farrah Abraham, a actuality tv star, mentioned she had been sexually battered. Whereas authorities in Palm Seashore, Fla., pursue that case, the state lawyer basic’s workplace is dealing with the felony investigation in California.

“I didn’t interact in any non-consensual sexual acts with any girl,” Foppoli mentioned in his three-paragraph resignation letter. He mentioned he was stepping down to forestall “undue nationwide consideration” that would damage Windsor, “due to lawful, however poor decisions, I’ve made within the latest previous.”

Front pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The San Francisco Chronicle revealed repeated front-page scoops on the Foppoli scandal.

The furor reveals no signal of abating, partially due to the alleged failure of native establishments to pursue complaints about Foppoli. One Chronicle story provided proof that Windsor city officers did not observe up 4 years in the past, after one alleged sufferer claimed the formidable politician had sexually abused her throughout a 2013 scorching tub social gathering at a guesthouse run by Foppoli’s Christopher Creek Vineyard. (Metropolis officers insisted that they had adopted the correct protocols.)

Bordas, 31, has declined to debate the story, or what went unsuitable when she introduced it to her editors on the Santa Rosa paper.

The final define of the journalistic failure seems clear: Bordas got here to the Press Democrat in late 2018, after attending the Columbia College Graduate Faculty of Journalism and dealing a 12 months at a North Carolina newspaper. Amongst her early assignments was protection of Windsor, a city of 28,000 that included solely in 1992 however has grown extra quickly than its older and better-known neighbors, like Sonoma and Healdsburg.

The group takes explicit delight in its City Inexperienced, the scene of summer season live shows and youngsters’ motion pictures, the place households loll on the grass with picnic baskets and bottles of wine. Windsor’s most flamboyant determine was the homegrown Foppoli, who in 2014 grew to become the city’s youngest council member, at 32. He rapidly developed a status as pro-development and at all times able to community with colleagues and pals. He typically traveled the Sonoma Valley with a case of the household’s wine behind his white Tesla.

Dominic Foppoli speaks and gestures toward the distance

Dominic Foppoli, proprietor of Christopher Creek Vineyard and the previous mayor of Windsor, surveys his Russian River Valley operation within the wake of the Kincade fireplace in 2019.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Occasions)

Someday in early 2019, a Press Democrat task editor advised Bordas about rumors that Foppoli had engaged in “unsavory” habits, one other editor recalled. The reporter started to dig in and shortly got here again to editors with stories from two ladies who claimed that they had been sexually assaulted by the mayor.

However after a couple of dialog, editors advised Bordas to give attention to different tales. The rationale why stays murky. Present and former Press Democrat staffers attribute it, partially, to a “feed the beast” tradition widespread in lots of newsrooms.

American newspapers have been in disaster for not less than 20 years, as promoting income has fled to different media, notably web giants like Fb and Google. Greater than half of U.S. newsroom jobs had been eradicated between 2008 and 2019, in line with the Pew Analysis Middle. Most newspapers wrestle to remain on prime of each day fundamentals that readers demand — equivalent to authorities protection, crime stories and highschool sport accounts — whereas additionally pursuing extra formidable tales, just like the Foppoli investigation, fraught with the potential for pricey miscues and litigation.

The Press Democrat has seen its union-represented information workers decline from 96 workers in 2005 to 39 right this moment, in line with the Pacific Media Employees Guild.

“How do you discover the time to permit a reporter to spend even in the future every week not producing copy to feed the beast?” mentioned one other former staffer, who requested to not be named. “The beast has gotten larger and larger,” he mentioned, “because the workers feeding it continues to get smaller.”

However a number of present and former Press Democrat staffers mentioned the issue went deeper. They complained of a top-down administration that dictated tales and typically didn’t hearken to reporters, particularly youthful ones.

Editor Inexperienced, 55, took command of the Press Democrat simply six weeks earlier than the Foppoli information broke within the Chronicle, unaware that the paper had earlier handed on the story. The editor would subsequently be taught that Bordas had uncovered the accusations as sexual misconduct allegations swept the nation.

“It was proper in the midst of ‘Me Too’ when this occurred,” mentioned Inexperienced. “We didn’t present the correct help system to let her pursue a narrative that turned out to be a reasonably rattling large one.”

And an uncommon lapse.

The California Newspaper Publishers Assn. has repeatedly named the Press Democrat as the highest newspaper of its measurement within the state. In 1999, it broke information a couple of Roman Catholic bishop admitting he had intercourse with a priest. In 2009, it revealed the monetary struggles of Sonoma County’s largest actual property investor, Clem Carinalli. The Press Democrat’s largest splash got here in 2017, when fires swept the North Bay, killing greater than 40 individuals and inflicting billions of {dollars} of injury.

Press Democrat reporters and photographers plunged into the hazard, offering prompt video and written stories, fixed social media updates and, lastly, probing narratives in regards to the genesis of the calamity. The Pulitzer judges honored the protection as “lucid and tenacious.”

However the thrill of the Pulitzer victory had a “darkish facet,” in line with one staffer, the height expertise encouraging some journalists to retire and others to search out jobs elsewhere. “That creates extra work and extra stress for those who stay,” mentioned the reporter.

The group of the newsroom and task of journalists to beats withered away, for causes that aren’t clear, three staffers mentioned. However many reporters had been unfold skinny, with a number of duties. Bordas lined healthcare, along with Windsor.

“On a day-to-day foundation we had been pleased with the work we had been doing,” mentioned one other journalist. “Nevertheless it felt like there was a ceiling, and we couldn’t be the shining mild that the majority of us get in journalism to be.”

Critics each inside and out of doors the paper mentioned they don’t imagine the Press Democrat backed away from the Foppoli story due to the politician’s connections. “It was an egregious mistake,” mentioned one journalist, “however not one thing greater than that.”

Catherine Barnett, the manager editor who retired on the finish of 2020, after greater than 4 many years on the paper, didn’t reply to a request for remark. Appel, the previous managing editor, additionally didn’t reply cellphone calls. A number of journalists mentioned they had been saddened on the departure of Appel, a mainstay on the Press Democrat for about three many years, who they mentioned had supported powerful protection of native officers.

Present and former colleagues mentioned they nonetheless weren’t clear on what Appel and different editors determined two years in the past on the Foppoli story. Some questioned if editors had been overly cautious due to Bordas’ relative inexperience, or due to a 2016 defamation lawsuit, although that case was finally dismissed by an appellate courtroom.

The Chronicle was not deterred. After the report in regards to the unique accusers, the San Francisco paper produced a number of extra scoops, together with a couple of Foppoli spokesman, outstanding for lobbying the Trump administration, who used a misogynistic slur towards Bordas.

The scandal took one other dramatic flip when fellow Windsor City Council member Esther Lemus mentioned she had been sodomized and probably drugged, after Foppoli and one other man drove her dwelling. Lemus, 48, went public with that data simply hours after Foppoli issued an announcement saying he was the sufferer and that Lemus had pressured him right into a sexual encounter. As a result of she works as a prosecutor for the Sonoma County district lawyer, that workplace recused itself and referred the allegations to the California lawyer basic.

Most of Sonoma County’s elected officers demanded the mayor’s resignation, as did lots of his personal constituents in a raucous video Metropolis Council assembly. However till final Friday, Foppoli insisted he would keep the course. He mentioned he was the sufferer of a “witch hunt” by individuals intent on driving him from energy.

Regardless of the humiliation of being crushed on a narrative in their very own yard, Bordas’ former colleagues privately cheered her for holding the Foppoli story alive. “She had that power and keenness,” mentioned one former co-worker. “We’re all very pleased with what she did.”

After she left the Press Democrat in 2019, Bordas went to work for a nonprofit that teaches filmmaking to younger individuals. She mentioned in a web based posting that she had “principally transitioned out” of the information enterprise. However these she lined would have been sensible to heed her vow.

“There are lots of lingering tales that I didn’t have the time to inform whereas working within the media trade,” Bordas wrote. “So now I’m able to chip away at them, one-by-one, to ensure they’re advised.”





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