Taxpayers have paid more than $113,000 in legal expenses related to an attempted extortion charge that was later dropped against Fresno City Councilman Nelson Esparza.
Esparza fought and won in court after the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office dropped the case last December at a pre-trial hearing.
But the question of who covered Esparza’s six-figure legal expenses has always been shrouded in mystery. The Fresno City Council never held an open meeting discussion or vote about the matter.
Last year, GV Wire uncovered that votes, or “direction” was given in closed session, that was never publicly divulged, to cover Esparza’s legal expenses — as well as those of councilman Garry Bredefeld.
While items such as legal matters are allowed to be discussed in closed session, any votes or decisions to spend money should be publicly unveiled, legal experts said. Even advice given to the city council to reveal the votes went unheeded.
Most current councilmembers declined to comment on how or why they covered the costs.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” Councilman Mike Karbassi said.
GV Wire analyzed public records provided by the city, and overall costs provided by the City Attorney’s Office. The costs came from three main areas: Esparza’s criminal defense, attorney fees a judge ruled that Esparza owed Bredefeld’s attorneys, and a third-party attorney’s fees to advise the city council.
Criminal Costs: More Than $68,000
The criminal investigation was based on an April 22 private conversation between Esparza, then the city council president, and then-City Attorney Douglas Sloan.
In the criminal complaint, Esparza allegedly told Sloan to comply with the wishes of the council majority or risk losing his job.
Sloan felt that Esparza was threatening his job if he did not comply with Esparza and a majority of left-leaning councilmembers. Esparza contended that he never made such threats and that Sloan misinterpreted the conversation.
Smittcamp’s office charged Esparza in July 2022 with one felony attempted extortion count and a misdemeanor for violating the city charter. A judge later reduced the felony to a misdemeanor.
The city council agreed to cover Esparza’s criminal defense, handled by a third party. Prominent defense attorney Mark Coleman defended Esparza. The contract would pay Coleman $350 an hour, and his associates $250 an hour.
Coleman partnered with Margarita Martinez Baly and Scott Quinlan. The final invoice came to $68,174, the City Attorney’s Office said.
Prosecutor Victor Lai, head of the DA’s public integrity unit, agreed to drop charges after Esparza publicly told his side of the story at a preliminary hearing.
Esparza told the judge the conversation with Sloan was about concerns some councilmembers were using the city attorney to investigate others — “weaponizing” the office. The city council passed a resolution that any investigation into one of their own would require council consent.
“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 in court.
District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, in media interviews after the court hearing, said that she wished Esparza would have come forward with his statement sooner.
City Covers $25,000 Payment to Bredefeld’s Attorneys
After Bredefeld learned about the conversation between Esparza and Sloan, he held a May 13 news conference at City Hall and accused Esparza of extortion.
Three days later, Esparza filed a civil defamation lawsuit against Bredefeld, arguing the extortion claims were lies.
Bredefeld filed an anti-SLAPP motion, that in essence asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit because it infringed on free speech rights. Esparza dropped the lawsuit before there was even a hearing.
However, the consequence of an anti-SLAPP motion is the plaintiff has to cover the defense’s legal costs if successful. Bredefeld’s legal team won a ruling that even with the lawsuit dismissed, the anti-SLAPP legal costs provisions applied.
The city council agreed to cover Bredefeld’s legal costs, primarily because his news conference was in a councilmember’s scope and duties.
The city paid Bredefeld’s attorney, Walt Whalen, $25,101. Bredefeld went back to court to force Esparza to personally reimburse the city. The court ruled against that effort, essentially saying it didn’t care who paid Bredefeld’s attorneys, as long as payment was made.[This story has been updated to clarify that Bredefeld sought Esparza to reimburse the city.]
Legal Advice: at Least $20,000
Because the City Attorney’s Office was directly involved in the Esparza and Bredefeld legal sagas, it had to recuse itself from the matters.
An outside firm, Lozano Smith, guided the city during several closed session items on the issues. Esparza and Bredefeld also recused themselves from participating in those discussions.
The City Attorney’s Office says Lozano Smith billed $20,153 for legal advice related to Bredefeld and Esparza.
James Sanchez, a one-time Fresno City Attorney, provided the bulk of the Lozano Smith advice.
The total for outside legal counsel could be higher. These numbers do not reflect a second firm hired by the city, Meyers Nave.