Esther Lemus leaving Sonoma County DA, will not seek top prosecutor job in 2022

Following two months of professional leave after coming forward to accuse Dominic Foppoli of sexual assault, Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus is resigning her job as a Sonoma County deputy district attorney to work in the nonprofit sector.

Lemus, 48, is leaving the DA’s office after 14 years to join Legal Aid of Sonoma County, where her focus will be legal assistance and outreach to the county’s vulnerable elderly residents, particularly in rural areas.

Lemus was eyeing a run for the district attorney post next year following Jill Ravitch’s announcement that she would retire when her term is up at the end of 2022. But on Wednesday she told The Press Democrat she would not run this election cycle.

“It was something that I was strongly considering and really gave a lot of thought,” Lemus said. She did not rule out a future campaign for the post.

“Anything is possible in the future, so certainly I’m not closing the door,” she said. The district attorney is elected to a four-year term.

“I’m going to focus my efforts on the opportunity I’ve been given with Legal Aid to serve the elder community,” Lemus said. “I’m also going to continue focusing on the town of Windsor.”

Lemus will stay in her seat on the Windsor Town Council, which has endured a period of immense political turmoil for Sonoma County’s fourth largest city. The four-member council has been sharply divided on key issues, including a dispute over how to fill the seat vacated by Foppoli, who resigned as mayor in May amid a torrent of high-profile sexual assault allegations made against him.

Lemus’ seat on the Town Council will be up in November 2022, and she intends to run for reelection, she said.

A former federal prosecutor and Windsor school trustee, Lemus had pondered a campaign for district attorney during a two-month leave from her prosecuting work amid a period of intense media and public scrutiny after she in April became the sixth woman to accuse Foppoli of sexual assault.

Lemus went public with her allegations against Foppoli after he accused her of using her political position to pressure him into a sexual encounter.

Lemus denied that accusation and said that she suspects Foppoli on two occasions slipped drugs into her alcoholic drinks to facilitate sex without her consent, leading to alleged sexual assaults in February and August 2020.

Foppoli has rejected those accusations and has maintained he is innocent of the public claims by Lemus and eight other women who accused him of sexual assault, abuse or harassment.

Since she detailed her allegations against Foppoli in an April 10 interview with The Press Democrat, Lemus has been targeted with public insults and innuendo by a friend and advocate of Foppoli’s, Washington, D.C.-based political operative Robert Stryk. Lemus’ civil attorney, Traci Carrillo, has accused Stryk of threatening to release compromising videos of the councilwoman.

Any such videos, if they exist, are evidence of a crime, Carrillo said.

Investigations into Foppoli are underway at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Palm Beach Police Department in Florida, where Foppoli has been accused of sexual assault by reality TV star Farrah Abraham. Officials with both agencies said in recent weeks that those investigations are continuing. Officials have declined to comment on their scope or progression.

Lemus said the investigations and any potential for criminal charges or trial had no bearing on her decision to leave the DA’s office. Ravitch recused her office from investigating Foppoli immediately after Lemus reported her allegations to law enforcement.

Lemus reported the alleged sexual assaults to the sheriff’s office on April 8, the day the San Francisco Chronicle published an initial series of allegations made by four women who said Foppoli sexually assaulted or abused them. Lemus has spoken about the shock, denial, shame and a desire she had to maintain relationships on the Town Council as all playing a role in her early decision not to report the crimes.

On Wednesday, Lemus said that far from dimming her credibility as a prosecutor, the experience has given her “a refined lens” into her work and increased her drive to help victims of crime and abuse.

“I now am able to view through the eyes of a sex assault victim and victims in general and understand the sensitivity,” she said. “It becomes an asset to me in that role. I know what to do to make people comfortable.”