Editorial: Who is playing dirty in Sonoma politics?

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As we count down the days to the 2018 Sonoma City Council election, it’s hard not to marvel at the state we’re in. Politics have gotten dirty in a way we’ve not seen in Sonoma, from a slut-shaming website on Rachel Hundley to an attack ad targeting Jack Wagner simply for working at our beloved Swiss Hotel.

Like everyone else, we were curious to find the source of these mean-spirited missives.

Our investigation into the Hundley website evaporated when it was quickly deleted. The recent attack ads were mailed to hundreds of residents, and appear to violate California Fair Political Practices Commission rules for failing to cite a funding source. If these mailers are determined to violate commission code, the sender could face a fine of $5,000 per violation, according to Jay Wierenga, communications director of the FPPC. That’s assuming anyone can find the sender.

The first ad, sent in early October, shows support for candidates James Cribb, Chris Petlock and Jack Ding. The second touts those same candidates along with Madolyn Agrimonti. It’s worth noting that all of the candidates have said they have nothing to do with the smear campaign against their opponents. While the FPPC is reviewing and investigating these mailers, we have been digging into the scraps we can piece together, following the digital trails wherever they lead.

The most recent mailer attacked Logan Harvey and Rachel Hundley, who are running as a slate, for being renters and “welfare politicians.” It pointed readers to a change.org petition entitled “Sonoma – Proposition 10 will cost the average Sonoma homeowner $100,000. Vote No!” Proposition 10 is the statewide measure that would open the legal door for cities to consider rent control.

The petition was created by Sara Travis, who in an email to the Index-Tribune said she paid for the change.org mailers and that they do not violate FPPC rules. She said that she is a homeowner, although her name does not appear in any tax records or MLS searches. Perhaps the home is in a family member’s name. Travis did not submit to our request for additional information needed to verify her residence in Sonoma. The Sonoma County Registrar of Voters confirmed that no one using that name has ever registered to vote in the City of Sonoma.

We ran Travis’ Yahoo email address through our website’s commenting system, a commonly used platform called Disqus. Connected to that email address, we found one comment posted under the name Sara Travis on the April 6, 2017 story, “Council at impasse over Planning Commission.”

We then looked into Travis’ account to see if we could glean any other information about this mysterious woman, who did not respond to our requests for a face-to-face interview.

Disqus allows us to search any user accounts created on the same IP address. For the non-techies, an IP address is sort of like your home address, but for digital devices. Our technical experts on staff confirmed that IP addresses either link to a single device, like your cellphone or computer, or a shared network, like an office server that can be used by many. IP addresses can also change over time. If Comcast reboots your router, your computer could be assigned a new number, while the old one could be recycled to another user.

We found three other accounts connected to Travis’ IP address, one of which was under the name Edmond Routhier, along with a photo of the prominent Sonoma developer and partner of Caymus Builders and Caymus Capital. Reached by email, Routhier said Travis was a former tenant who had shared WiFi access, which would explain the IP address connection.

The two other accounts registered to that IP address were both created just one day after Travis’ account under the names Addie Davis and James Greenberg. Like Travis, we can find no record of anyone with those names ever living in Sonoma.

Routhier declined to give us additional information on Travis. But he said he has nothing to do with the mailers, adding, “I was asked to forward one mailer, and although I support its No on Prop. 10 position, I did not forward it as I support Logan Harvey and I do not support Madolyn Agrimonti.”

That is where our Travis trail grew cold. We will continue to dig.

Just as this editorial was set to go to press, we were made aware of a third attack mailer targeting Hundley based on an alleged interview with her former roommate, Audrey Pratt. The exact same interview was posted on the slut-shaming website earlier this year. The mailer was printed on letterhead from San Anselmo-based Llewellyn Marketing Communication. It’s the same firm Routhier has used to support his development projects, most recently the homes on Schocken Hill, which Hundley helped vote down.

Unmasking whoever is behind these suspicious ads is critical to maintain our collective good faith in the local election process. While vicious and anonymous attacks seem to be the new norm in national politics, we think Sonoma is too good for this behavior.

Contact Emily at emily.charrier@sonomanews.com.

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