Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza charged with attempted extortion

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Tuesday, July 19, 2022
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Fresno's city council now has a siting president who is criminally charged with trying to extort the city attorney.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Fresno's city council now has a sitting president who is criminally charged with trying to extort the city attorney.

The Fresno County district attorney's office filed the felony charge of attempted extortion against Nelson Esparza on Monday.

Esparza's legal troubles started with a short conversation with then-city attorney Doug Sloan just three months into Esparza's term as city council president.

Sloan emailed Action News his recollection of the conversation.

He said Esparza told him, "I'm just going to cut to the chase. I'm standing between you and you losing your job. From now on you are to work only for the council majority."

Sloan said his response was, "So what do I do if the others ask me to do something?"

To which Esparza replied, "Come talk to me."

Sloan told councilmember Garry Bredefeld he believed the exchange amounted to extortion, but legal analyst Tony Capozzi said it's not cut-and-dried.

"I'm not so sure this is extortion," he said after viewing Sloan's version of the exchange. "It may be something more attuned to playing politics."

Bredefeld publicly accused Esparza of extortion three weeks later.

Sloan left for Santa Monica in June.

Esparza sued Bredefeld for defamation, but later dropped the case, saying it would become expensive for the city.

City leaders don't know yet if the city will be responsible for Esparza's criminal defense.

Capozzi says Sloan's belief that the conversation amounted to extortion won't matter in court.

"The DA has to show what's in the mind of Nelson Esparza when he spoke to Doug Sloan not what's in the mind of Doug Sloan," Capozzi said. "That's irrelevant. What is Esparza trying to do? Is it politics or trying to break the law? That's something a jury's going to decide."

But Capozzi says the DA probably made the right decision to file the case, letting a jury decide whether Esparza broke any laws and whether his political career can continue.

"Obviously if he's convicted I think his political career is over with," he said. "But I really believe he has defenses in this case and if he successfully defends himself, I don't think this will affect his career."

Last month, voters re-elected Esparza to city council for a four-year term starting in January 2023.

City leaders are looking into whether he can even keep his city council seat if he's convicted of the felony charge.

State law says he couldn't run for another office if he was convicted.

Mayor Jerry Dyer released a statement saying he knows charges like these can destroy public confidence, but they won't disrupt the business of city government.

A spokesman for Esparza told us he's focused on city issues like infrastructure, more housing, and public safety, but he looks forward to proving his innocence.