Fresno City Council President attempted extortion case set to go to trial

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Wednesday, November 16, 2022
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A Fresno County Superior Court judge reduced the attempted extortion charge against Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza to a misdemeanor.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A judge decided Tuesday there's enough evidence for an attempted extortion trial against Fresno's city council president.

But the case against Nelson Esparza got a little less serious after the former city attorney testified.

Former Fresno city attorney Doug Sloan repeated his recollection of an April backroom conversation with Esparza in court Tuesday.

"Council president Esparza said to me 'I'm just going to cut to the chase. I'm standing between you and you losing your job. From now on, you will work only for the council majority,'" Sloan testified at a preliminary hearing for Esparza's case.

Sloan said he heard Esparza's words as a threat to his job, so he started the process of moving to Santa Monica right away.

Sloan acknowledged that a Fresno city attorney can only be fired by a majority of council members, so Esparza couldn't do it alone.

And he never clarified exactly what Esparza meant.

"Other than those words, did you have any reason whatsoever to believe he had the power to do what he was threatening to do?" defense attorney Mark Coleman asked Sloan.

"Well, other than influence," Sloan said. "I don't know but that he had a conversation with the others that were the majority about this topic. That's what was implied."

"Did you ask him?" Coleman asked.

"No," said Sloan.

Councilmember Miguel Arias testified that Sloan got a positive performance review the day before and knew his job wasn't at risk.

Esparza's defense team says there's no evidence Esparza actually intended to extort Sloan or fire him.

But they argue a threat to do something a person has the legal right to do can't be extortion.

"Mr. Esparza is perfectly entitled to tell Mr. Sloan that he's going to be fired unless he complies with the will of the majority of the council," Coleman said.

Sloan only told a few people at City Hall about the conversation, including city manager Georgeanne White, who told investigators Sloan referred to Esparza as a "little pissant millennial".

Judge Brian Alvarez ruled Sloan's testimony Tuesday was enough to push the case to a trial.

But he reduced the felony attempted extortion charge to a misdemeanor and noted Sloan's comments might become an element of Esparza's defense.

"There's also evidence that Mr. Sloan called defendant a "millennial pissant", I think the term was used, which to the Court's way of thinking may reflect on his credibility and admit to some enmity towards Mr. Esparza," said Judge Alvarez.

So now Esparza is headed for a misdemeanor trial in December.

If he's convicted, the maximum punishment would be a year in jail, but his attorneys say it would also probably ruin his political career.