Fresno city council president asks judge to dismiss attempted extortion case

Prosecutors charged Esparza with attempted extortion, accusing him of threatening to fire then-city attorney Doug Sloan.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2022 12:12AM
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Fresno's city council president was scheduled to answer to a felony attempted extortion charge, but his attorneys flipped the script.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A political surprise landed in criminal court Tuesday.

Fresno's city council president was scheduled to answer to a felony attempted extortion charge, but his attorneys flipped the script in an attempt to get the case dismissed.

Nelson Esparza said in July he's not guilty. That was at City Hall.

Tuesday, his attorneys maneuvered so he may never have to say it in court.

Esparza runs the show during Fresno city council meetings at City Hall.

But in the criminal courthouse Tuesday, the city council president was another face - almost lost in a crowd of defendants and attorneys.

Prosecutors charged Esparza with attempted extortion, accusing him of threatening to fire then-city attorney Doug Sloan unless Sloan worked exclusively for Esparza and the council majority.

Sloan has since taken a job as city attorney in Santa Monica, getting a raise of almost $90,000.

Esparza's criminal defense is now taking shape.

"Mr. Esparza never intended to extort anything from Doug Sloan," said defense attorney Mark Coleman.

Legal analyst Ralph Torres says intent is the most important issue: Did Esparza intend to extort Sloan?

Esparza's attorneys say there was no intent, but before even getting that far, they want the judge to dismiss the case.

Esparza filed a declaration with the court Tuesday saying he believed his conversations with Sloan were protected by attorney-client privilege since Sloan was the attorney for city council.

Esparza said he never waived his privilege.

But Torres says there's an exception.

"The attorney has to be subject to (attorney-client privilege) unless there's a crime or some kind of fraud," Torres said.

He says attorneys would usually advise their clients if they thought the clients were about to break the law and he doesn't know why Sloan didn't.

But he says the attorney-client privilege argument could still work.

Court documents show Sloan talked to a few people at City Hall about the April conversation with Esparza.

He detailed it to an Action News reporter in an email after Councilmember Garry Bredefeld took the accusations public.

Esparza's attorneys say the email violated attorney-client privilege and prosecutors can't make a case without making Sloan violate it again.

They want a judge to throw out the case.

"So basically, the aim is for him to never actually be arraigned?" an Action News reporter asked Coleman.

"Yes," the defense attorney replied.

Esparza is due back in court next month when his attorneys will argue the motion.

If they win, the case would be dismissed.

If not, he'll be arraigned.