The lengthy controversy surrounding Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza has come to a close.
Monday, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office dropped the misdemeanor extortion charges against Esparza during a pre-trial hearing.
In court, prosecutor Victor Lai said the move to dismiss the charges came “in the interest of justice” after Esparza read a statement admitting that he threatened to fire former Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan.
Esparza had been accused of threatening Sloan with his job if the city attorney refused to only work for the council’s liberal majority.
In his statement, Esparza said Sloan misinterpreted his comments regarding a resolution passed on April 21 – the day before their conversation – that was designed to prevent a single councilmember from weaponizing the city attorney’s office against other councilmembers.
Esparza said he spoke to Sloan on April 22 about his perception and anger that the city attorney’s office was being weaponized and used to circumvent the will of the council majority.
“I did in fact imply to Mr. Sloan that if this happens and that the new resolution was not followed, that I would vote to terminate him. I never directed him not to comply with his legal and ethical obligations. I wish that he would have come to me to clarify before these allegations became public. This entire situation could have been avoided,” Esparza said.
“I had no idea that he had misinterpreted our conversation until May 13th, when his version of our conversation was made public. I understand these allegations had to be investigated by the District Attorney’s Office as they are obligated to ensure that the residents of the City of Fresno receive fair representations that comply with the law as well as the city charter.”
After the hearing, Lai pointed to Esparza’s acknowledgement that he could vote to terminate Sloan if the resolution was not followed was central to the District Attorney’s Office moving to dismiss.
“If Councilman Esparza had made his acknowledgement that he did today a little earlier, where he said, ‘OK, maybe I did say those words,’ maybe this would have been different,” Lai said. “I don’t know, I had to go with the information that we had at the time.”
The District Attorney’s Office released a statement after the case was dismissed saying the aim of the Public Integrity Unit – the DA’s arm that prosecuted the case – is as much about compliance as it is about prosecution.
“It is decidedly not about influencing policy or deciding who is in office. While Mr. Esparza claims he had good intentions during his interaction with former City Attorney Doug Sloan, good intentions do not relieve our elected officials of following the law. The District Attorney’s Office hopes that Mr. Esparza has learned from this experience and can move forward a better Councilman, to continue to serve his constituents with diligence and integrity.”
Esparza issued his own statement following the dismissal:
“I came into this process as a free and innocent man and am coming out of the process the same way. Since the beginning of this process, I have repeatedly defended my reputation and innocence in this matter. I can finally say that the outcome was what we were expecting all along.” said Council President Esparza. “It was unfortunate that we had to go through this process, but at the end of the day our justice system worked. I would like to thank my family. friends, and the residents of Fresno for their unwavering support throughout the process. Despite the circumstances over the last several months, my office and I have continued to diligently serve the residents of District 7 without interruption, and we look forward to carrying on that work.”