Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza has been charged with a felony count of attempted extortion, the Fresno County District Attorney’s office announced Monday.
Esparza, 31, is accused of threatening the employment of former City Attorney Douglas Sloan in April. In allegations made by fellow city councilman Garry Bredefeld — and corroborated publicly by Sloan — Esparza allegedly told the city attorney to work only for a majority of four councilmembers, or face termination.
Sloan left for a city attorney job in Santa Monica weeks later.
“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. He looks forward to the forthcoming process and proving his innocence,” Esparza spokesman Michael Trujillo said in an email Monday afternoon.
Esparza Faces Two Counts
In addition to the attempted extortion charge (Penal Code 524), Esparza also faces one count of violating the Fresno City Charter, listed as Sec. 803. That section defines the role of the city attorney, particularly to “Represent and advise the Council and all city officers in all matters of law pertaining to their offices.”
The District Attorney says Esparza could face up to three years in state prison and fines.
It is unclear if Esparza was formally arrested. As of 1:10 p.m., his name did not appear on the Fresno County jail log or released inmate list.
A Fresno County Superior Court docket indicates an arrest warrant was reviewed and issued, but later recalled. Esparza posted a bond. His arraignment date is set for Sept. 20 in front of Judge Jon Kapetan.
Voters re-elected Esparza last month to a second, four-year term. A provision of the city charter could remove Esparza from office if he “is convicted of a felony or of an offense involving a violation of his or her duties.”[Note: an earlier version of this story indicated that Esparza could face up to one year for each count. The District Attorney’s office clarified that the way the law is written, it does mean up to three years.]
Bredefeld: “Not Easy to Expose”
Bredefeld, long a critic of Esparza and other councilmembers, publicly accused Esparza of extortion during a May 13 news conference.
Speaking to the media that day, Bredefeld alleged that Esparza told Sloan not to do any work for three members of the seven-member council. If any of the three — Bredefeld, Mike Karbassi, and Luis Chavez — requested work, Sloan should report that to Esparza, according to Bredefeld. Failure to follow his orders, Esparza allegedly said, would result in the city attorney’s firing, Bredefeld alleged.
Esparza immediately denied the allegations and sued Bredefeld for defamation. After learning that the city would have to pay for Bredefeld’s legal defense, Esparza dropped his lawsuit.
“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,” Bredefeld said in an email on Monday.
“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,” Bredefeld said.
In a court filing during the defamation suit, Esparza told his side of the story:
“Esparza informed Mr. Sloan that, in his assessment, several Councilmembers were displeased with the fact that his City Attorney’s office had been weaponized for partisan purposes by Councilmember Garry Bredefeld. Plaintiff further informed Mr. Sloan that he was not presently inclined to vote for termination but that, as a voting member of the Council he wanted to have reassurances that the previous night’s resolution would be complied with and abided by. At no time did plaintiff Esparza direct, order, imply or suggest to Mr. Sloan that he should work only for ‘the majority’ of the Council or only for any certain Councilmembers to the exclusion of any others,” the filing states.
Dyer: Concerning News
Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer released a statement Monday afternoon.
“This type of concerning news can cause the community to lose confidence in its government and question the integrity of public officials,” Dyer said in a news release. “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.”
Read the Felony Complaint