By The Business Journal Staff Posted: July 18, 2022
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp has filed a corruption-related charge against Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza.
Smittcamp filed a felony complaint with a single count of attempted extortion as well as a count of violating the city charter with regard to city attorney powers and duties.
Esparza offered his first statement to the charges Monday afternoon, saying through a spokesperson: “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 is accused of threatening former Fresno City Attorney Douglas Sloan, implying Sloan would be fired unless he agreed to work strictly for the Council majority.
On May 13, fellow Councilmember Garry Bredefeld held a press conference accusing Esparza of attempted extortion against Sloan.
During the press conference, Bredefeld detailed a meeting between Sloan and Esparza that occurred on April 22. Bredefeld, after a conversation with Sloan, said that Sloan was told by Esparza to solely work for the “majority,” referring to Esparza and Councilmembers Miguel Arias, Tyler Maxwell, and Esmeralda Soria.
Bredefeld said this alleged extortion is the reason for Sloan’s resignation, which he announced at the end of April.
Sloan has only commented publicly to one media outlet, essentially confirming the account shared by Bredefeld. Esparza filed a defamation lawsuit against Bredefeld, later withdrawing the suit.
Esparza has denied the extortion allegation. In his lawsuit, he asserts: “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.”
If convicted of these charges, Esparza faces potential fines, jail time or up to three years imprisonment in state prison, according to a news release from Smittcamp’s office.
The matter will be prosecuted by Senior Deputy District Attorney Victor Lai with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, which has faced allegations of politically-driven prosecutions.
Fresno Attorney Douglas L. Gordon, who represented Esparza in the short-lived defamation suit, had no comment Monday regarding the charges.