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Criminal charges are dismissed against Fresno City Council president

Soreath Hok
Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza speaks outside the Fresno County Courthouse following a dismissal of attempted extortion charges.

FRESNO, Calif. — The Fresno County District Attorney’s office dismissed an attempted extortion charge this week against Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza, ending a months-long legal dispute involving the former city attorney.

Esparza’s misdemeanor charge had been reduced from a felony in November. In court, Esparza read a statement acknowledging details of an April 22 conversation with former City Attorney Doug Sloan.

During that conversation, Esparza was accused of threatening Sloan’s employment if Sloan didn’t follow a resolution that the council had just passed the night before, designed to “de-weaponize” the city attorney’s office.

Esparza clarifies words in court

Esparza court_12-5-22.jpg
Soreath Hok
Nelson Esparza reads his statement in court, following a motion to dismiss attempted extortion charges.

In Monday’s courtroom statement, Esparza admitted his words could have implied a threat to fire Sloan, but he said his statements were misunderstood.

“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 so this entire situation could have been avoided,” Esparza said in the courtroom.

Esparza added that he was unaware of how his comments were interpreted by Sloan until May 13, when the conversation and allegations were revealed in a news conference.

Following the news conference, a formal complaint was submitted to the District Attorney's Public Integrity Unit, which investigates public officials or public employees accused of violating their official duties.

Victor Lai heads the unit and was the Fresno County DA’s prosecutor in Nelson Esparza’s case. He said Esparza’s statement Monday was a turning point in the case.

“He acknowledged that, ‘I said those words that could have been taken to understand that, unless you do this – you're fired.’ Right? And that's obviously a change,” Lai said.

He added, it came down to interpretation. “Sometimes when we are dealing with employees, we may not exactly realize how our words are being taken.”

He also said he hoped Esparza could move forward from the incident and be a better counsel person from this experience.

Criticism of investigation

Soreath Hok
Victor Lai, senior deputy district attorney at the Fresno County District Attorney's office, speaks to reporters outside the Fresno County Courthouse, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

Lai addressed accusations that the investigation was politically-motivated by the District Attorney’s office. He said the Public Integrity Unit has an obligation to investigate any leads or complaints, regardless of political affiliation.

“I have never been directed to investigate or not investigate anybody based on political affiliation and if the DA asked me to do that, I would refuse because that's not what we do,” he said.

Lai said he spoke to Sloan, the former city attorney who quit his job shortly after the allegations became public. Sloan now works as the city attorney in Santa Monica. Lai said Sloan was “glad to put this behind him.”

Following the hearing, Esparza and his defense team spoke outside the courthouse and applauded the DA’s decision to dismiss the case.

After more than six months of back and forth court filings and motions, Esparza said he felt exonerated.

“I came into this process a free and innocent man and I am exiting this process the same way,” he said.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.