A freelancer navigates the exposure of an exposé
After protecting its freelancer, the San Francisco Chronicle was able to expose sexual-assault accusations against a rising political star in the region.
Alexandria Bordas had been developing this story for two years: Dominic Foppoli, a rising political star in California’s wine country, was rumored to be a serial sexual predator. Two women held credible allegations spanning 16 years, ranging from assault to rape.
Bordas, with investigative chops and experience reporting on domestic violence and the #MeToo movement, was just the reporter to track these leads to the ground.
As a staff reporter in 2019, Bordas first brought the allegations to her editors at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a daily newspaper serving Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties. But her editors declined to commission the story.
Bordas later left the paper, securing full-time work outside of journalism. But she refused to let the specter of a predatory politician rest.
As a freelancer in her spare time, she pitched the story to more than 30 other regional newsrooms. All rejected her pitch. In 2020, she submitted a proposal to the San Francisco Chronicle, the largest newspaper in Northern California and the second largest on the West Coast according to its owner, Hearst.
"Prince of the Wine Country"
If coverage in the Press Democrat would have made waves, a Chronicle exposé was bound to have a seismic impact.
Dominic Foppoli, scion of a family whose winemaking roots in Sonoma County date back 100 years, was a high-profile figure with political ambitions.
He first ran for California State Assembly in 2003, as a college student. A 2018 CBS television special dubbed him “prince of the Wine Country” for championing local development and investments. He was the town of Windsor’s youngest-ever council member. By 2019, he was elected mayor. In 2020, he notched an elected position within the League of California Cities; and in 2021 he took a seat on the Board of Directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.
Bordas had interviewed the two women—joined later by others—plus friends, family members and witnesses. She reviewed social media messages, contemporaneous journal entries, and other documents to corroborate their accounts. It was all in place.
The Chronicle liked what it saw. They offered a contract, a staff reporter, and a co-byline.
After dozens of rejections, Bordas felt thrilled to sign a contract. She worked with the Chronicle’s editors and her co-reporter for months, ultimately connecting with two more women willing to come forward with similar allegations.
As Bordas spent the year-end holidays working on a first draft, she knew her reporting was airtight. She could now expose the dark allegations accompanying a powerful man’s growing influence in a wealthy region.
Or could she?
To get to the signature page, she had skipped past some potentially concerning legalese in the agreement. It was the Chronicle. The paper "would never do anything to put me in a bad situation," she recalled later telling a confidant. There was work to do.
But from a distance, her confidant was not so sure. By January 2021, he persuaded Bordas to send him the agreement, and almost immediately he responded with alarm and a suggestion to research further.
Through a joint Google-search, they gleaned the apparent danger. And the clearer the language became, the more disquieting it seemed to Bordas.
In what world, she thought, would a 155-year-old newspaper owned by a media company like Hearst, with more than 360 businesses worldwide, shift all liability onto an individual, independent freelancer? Especially when it required her to collaborate with a staff reporter, allow the Chronicle to "edit, revise and adapt the Work," and let the media company’s own legal team vet the exposé?
Bordas had earned the trust of vulnerable women taking enormous personal risk. She now realized that the newspaper had contractually declined to stand behind her in the event that Foppoli or his supporters were to sue.
Bordas brought up the issue with the Chronicle team. They were sympathetic and reassuring, they said they understood her concern—but they explained that this was a standard agreement for major news organizations.
"You have to trust that Hearst will do the right thing," she recalls the team telling her. "But I couldn’t risk my livelihood on a promise. … And they wouldn’t even put that it in writing."
She felt stricken—especially after trying every other outlet she could think of.
Briefly she considered publishing the story anonymously or blogging it. She began to worry that she "was never going to see this story have the impact I wanted it to—or I was going to have to pass on it completely."
With her Chronicle editor and reporting team patiently awaiting a first draft, Bordas stopped work entirely.
"I did not understand huge things in the contract that could affect me for the rest of my life," she said, echoing a refrain of too many freelancers. "I felt like I was completely drowning." She did not even understand enough about contracts to know "what I would have to start fighting for."
Freelancer legal vulnerability
It was then that she learned about Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE), from a media law professor at Columbia Journalism School, her alma mater.
FIRE had been researching how to address freelancer legal vulnerability for nearly a decade. Stories like Bordas’ were no exception.
By December, 2020, FIRE had commissioned a prominent First Amendment attorney to draft a freelance boilerplate contract, adopted a policy to support only stories for outlets that would protect freelancers—and piloted pro bono contract-related legal assistance, via the attorney, Charles Glasser, and his colleague Henry Kaufman.
The plan attracted $75,000 from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, along with other support, which enabled FIRE to extend its pilot program.
On January 6, Bordas applied for the program. Given the potential for litigation by Foppoli over her reporting, "I am now on the verge of pulling this story," she wrote in her application. "But I am not sure another outlet would both take the story and protect me as a freelancer. I feel stuck."
FIRE responded by offering a two-hour consultancy. The first phone call confirmed Bordas’ worst fears—she had indeed signed what’s known as an "indemnity clause." She had accepted liability for all legal costs—her own and the publisher’s—that may arise from the Chronicle’s story.
FIRE enlisted media law attorney Glasser to address the issue.
Within days, Bordas had enough context to understand the contract she had signed, precise language to use in communicating her needs to the paper, and tactical advice about how to convey it—including whom to address. She also had two of FIRE’s most trusted and experienced freelance reporters helping her maintain strong relations with her editor and reporting team, who had fostered "a really empowering experience."
Ultimately, the approach worked. The Chronicle found a way to fully indemnify Bordas, affording her all the protections of a full-time employee.
Just as her sources had found their voices, Bordas had advocated effectively for herself—with an editor and a publishing company. The paper had met her needs. Bordas responded by submitting her draft.
"This story has been part of my life for two years," she wrote in a thank-you note to FIRE at the time, "and now it might finally see the light."
Shock waves from story
Bordas’ exposé hit the stands three months later, sending shock waves through the community. The four women profiled had inspired others. Within six weeks, four more women came forward with corroborated allegations of sexual assault or misconduct. A ninth woman accused Foppoli of sexual battery during a recent trip to Florida.
In all, seven women gave on-the-record accounts to Bordas and her co-reporter, Cynthia Dizikes, in more than a dozen follow up stories released through June.
Foppoli issued a denial, saying he had not engaged "in any non-consensual sexual acts with any woman." By late May, he stepped down as Windsor mayor following resounding and widespread calls for his resignation. He was also removed from two major government posts and roles within his family’s winery. A criminal investigation was under way. And Bordas’ former employer, The Press-Democrat, in a highly unusual gesture, publicly rebuked itself for declining Bordas' original story.
But the most gratifying effect, Bordas says, was that the accusers felt seen and heard.
"I didn’t realize how many other women there were and thought I was alone in my experience, so I never expected this to actually lead to something," Sophia Williams, one of the original accusers, was quoted in one of Bordas’ stories.
Another woman, who chose to remain unnamed, told Bordas she came forward after years of privately carrying the scar of rape "because she could not stand seeing Foppoli rise in the political ranks of a town that she loved, and where she and her husband decided to raise their family."
But it was almost not to be.
"Had the Chronicle not ultimately found a solution to legally protect me, I would have had no choice but to pull the story and walk away," Bordas said. "I couldn't have done it without FIRE."
Bordas is now on staff at the Chronicle.
Read her original story here.