Fresno DA charges City Council president Nelson Esparza with attempted felony extortion

CRAIG KOHLRUSS/ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office on Monday charged the Fresno City Council president with one felony count of attempted extortion and one count of attempting to violate the city charter.

The complaint alleges that Councilmember Nelson Esparza threatened the employment of former Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan.

Esparza’s colleague, Councilmember Garry Bredefeld, first made the allegation publicly in May. Esparza since sued Bredefeld for defamation but later dropped the case.

Shortly after announcing the charges were filed, a “rush” warrant for Esparza’s arrest was issued. By Monday afternoon, court records indicated Esparza posted bond, and the warrant was recalled. Esparza is scheduled to be arraigned in September.

If convicted, Esparza faces potential fines, jail time or up to three years in state prison, the district attorney’s office said in a news release.

A spokesperson for Esparza released a statement Monday afternoon regarding the charges filed by the District Attorney.

“Council President Nelson Esparza is going to continue to focus on the issues that matter the most to District 7 and the City of Fresno: more infrastructure, more housing, public safety, and economic development,” spokesperson Mike Trujillo said. “He looks forward to the forthcoming process and proving his innocence.”

Senior Deputy District Attorney Victor Lai, who works for the district attorney’s public integrity unit, will prosecute the case.

“This type of concerning news can cause the community to lose confidence in its government and question the integrity of public officials,” Mayor Jerry Dyer said in a statement after the news broke Monday. “I want to reassure the public that we in city government will continue to do all we can to maintain their trust and confidence by delivering on the promises we have made to them.”

The Bee sent several messages to other councilmembers and Sloan seeking comment. This story will be updated with any responses received.

City council president faces extortion allegations

Bredefeld first alleged in May that Esparza committed extortion by threatening Sloan’s job if he completed work for councilmembers other than the council majority, which includes Esparza as well as Councilmembers Miguel Arias, Tyler Maxwell and Esmeralda Soria.

Bredefeld said Esparza threatened Sloan in a private meeting in April and that’s what ultimately caused Sloan to leave his position with the city.

Sloan shared details of a conversation he had with Esparza in an email. That message was relayed to several people, but never intended to become public, Sloan said.

For his part, Esparza denied the allegations, eventually filing the defamation suit, which accused Bredefeld of “knowingly making false allegations.”

Esparza ended up withdrawing the lawsuit, saying the decision protected the city from potential liability after he found out the city would have to defend Bredefeld.

Sloan left his city attorney post in June for a job in Santa Monica.

A declaration revealed Bredefeld made the initial report to the district attorney’s office.

After news of the charges broke Monday, Bredefeld said he looks forward to justice and accountability.

“It was not easy to expose the attempted extortion of City Attorney Doug Sloan by Nelson Esparza, and of course, I knew when I did I’d be attacked and was even sued because I did expose it,” he said in a statement. “Now after a thorough investigation by the district attorney, charges, including a felony, have been filed against Mr. Esparza. I believe in the constitution, due process, and look forward to justice and there being accountability for what occurred.”

Democrats allege Fresno District Attorney plays politics

Several local Democrats, including Councilmember Arias, previously accused District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, a Republican, of using her elected position to target Democrat politicians.

Over the last year, Smittcamp’s office investigated multiple City Councilmembers for at least two issues, sparking political tongue lashings from the council dais.

Arias in a March city council meeting criticized Smittcamp, saying she unfairly prosecutes Democrats in the court of public opinion while giving Republicans a pass.

“All these actions are purely political in nature and beneath her office and a disgrace to the Smittcamp legacy,” Arias said from the dais. “The politicization of your office has placed some of our safety at risk, including my family.”

Arias was referring to the prosecution and acquittal of Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno for misdemeanor child abuse, and Smittcamp’s public investigations of other Democrat Fresno City Councilmembers that led to no charges.

On the other hand, Smittcamp’s office chose not to prosecute Fresno Unified Trustee Terry Slatic, a Republican, in 2019 after he was involved in an altercation with a student at Bullard High School.