The city of Fresno hired a prominent criminal defense attorney to defend the City Council president in a criminal case, records show.
Nelson Esparza faces two criminal counts based on an alleged conversation in April with then-City Attorney Douglas Sloan. The Fresno District Attorney’s Office charged Esparza with one felony count of attempted extortion and a misdemeanor count of violating the city charter. If Esparza is convicted, he faces a maximum of three years in prison.
In a contract finalized Wednesday, Mark Coleman — recognized as a top trial lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers — will receive $350 an hour plus expenses. An associate attorney will be paid $250 an hour.
Expenses include travel costs outside of Fresno and meals. Overhead costs — such as office supplies and research software — are not covered.
Esparza is scheduled for arraignment on Tuesday, Sept. 20, in front of Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jon Kapetan.
Neither Esparza nor Coleman immediately responded to a request for comment.
Coleman most recently represented former congressman TJ Cox at his arraignment for dozens of federal fraud and campaign fraud charges last month. It is unclear if Coleman will continue to represent Cox.
Record of Vote to Hire Attorney Still Secret
State law allows cities to hire private attorneys for public employees, including elected leaders, although it is not mandatory.
The City Council took a vote in closed session in June to allow for the hiring of a criminal attorney, city documents uncovered by GV Wire revealed.
Contrary to advice from outside counsel, the city council has not publicly disclosed that vote. State open meeting laws mandate that votes in closed session must be announced publicly.
A council meeting scheduled for Thursday was cancelled last week because of a lack of quorum.
Councilman Garry Bredefeld disagrees with the decision to pay for Esparza’s attorney with city funds.
“I oppose using any taxpayer money to defend an elected official accused of a crime and will continue to do so,” Bredefeld said.
Esparza sued Bredefeld in civil court earlier this year for defamation. Bredefeld notified the media about the confrontation Esparza allegedly had with Sloan.
Bredefeld accused Esparza of attempting to extort Sloan — threatening the city official’s job security if he “worked” for the non-council majority.
Esparza has denied those charges. He was criminally charged July 18.
The civil case was eventually dropped, but discussed by the Fresno City Council in closed session. Esparza recused himself in those meetings.
Read the Contract