Fresno

Fresno Co. DA charges Nelson Esparza with felony over extortion attempt

Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza was charged with attempted extortion Monday for his alleged threats to former city attorney Doug Sloan. 

Esparza faces a felony complaint with one count of attempted extortion and one count of attempting to violate Section 803 of the Fresno City Charter, which details the position of the city attorney. 

The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office announced the charges Monday in a press release. 

“Councilmember Esparza is alleged to have threatened the employment of former Fresno City Attorney Douglas Sloan, implying that Sloan would be fired unless he agreed to work strictly for the Council majority,” the district attorney’s office said 

“If convicted of this charge, Councilmember Esparza faces potential fines, jail time, or up to 3 years imprisonment in state prison.” 

Senior Deputy District Attorney Victor Lai with the Public Integrity Unit will prosecute the case. 

Following the announcement, Mike Trujillo, Esparza’s spokesperson, issued the following statement on behalf of the Council President:

“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.”

The allegations surrounding Sloan’s exit stemmed from an April 22 meeting between him and Esparza in the Council President’s office. 

That meeting came one day after the city council held a closed session meeting which, in part, held Sloan’s performance review. 

On May 13, Councilman Garry Bredefeld held a press conference to reveal the extortion allegations. 

At the press conference, Bredefeld said Sloan was told the following by Esparza: 

  • He was to solely work for Esparza, Councilman Miguel Arias, Councilman Tyler Maxwell and Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria
  • He was to no longer do any work for Bredefeld, Councilman Luis Chavez and Councilman Mike Karbassi
  • When Bredefeld, Chavez or Karbassi requested him to do any work for them, he was not to do it and to report back to Esparza what they requested him to do
  • He was to understand that Esparza was the only thing stopping him from being fired by the council

Sloan understood that he would be fired if he did not comply with Esparza’s demands. 

Sloan, who was not present at the press conference, confirmed Bredefeld’s allegations later that day in the following statement in response to local media requests: 

[O]n the morning of April 22, I spoke to Council President in his office. This was the exchange:

[Nelson Esparza]: “I’m just going to cut to the chase. I’m standing between you and you losing your job. From now on you are to only work for the Council majority.”

[Doug Sloan]: So what do I do if the others ask me to do something?

NE: “Come talk to me.”

DS: “So where is Luis [Chavez] on this?”

NE: “It doesn’t matter.”

End of the conversation.

I relayed this conversation to a few people, and did not intend for it to be made public. First, I knew that there was no proof, other than credibility, that the conversation occurred. Second I was already strongly considering the new position, and I knew in my mind one way or another, I was certainly not going to violate the Charter and professional responsibilities and not provide service to all City officials.

It’s unfortunate this occurred, and hopefully it never will again.

Following the press conference, Esparza filed a lawsuit against Bredefeld for defamation. 

But on June 27, the week that the first hearing was scheduled, Esparza dropped the lawsuit, saying he was concerned about the city’s potential liability because he believed that the lawsuit would be successful.

Monday, in surprisingly reserved fashion, Bredefeld issued a statement reflecting on the news that criminal charges resulted from his public exposure of the alleged extortion by Esparza.

“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,” Bredefeld said in a statement to The Sun.

“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.”

Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer issued a statement regarding the felony news.

“This type of concerning news can cause the community to lose confidence in its government and question the integrity of public officials,” Dyer said. “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.”

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.