Fresno councilman becomes county DA’s latest political target

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The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office charged Fresno City Council Speaker Nelson Esparza with one count of extortion and one count of attempted violation of the city charter.

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Three years after trying — and failing — to derail the political career of a local Democratic politician, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp is doing it again.

In 2019, Smittcamp prosecuted MP Joaquin Arambula, who was later acquitted of misdemeanor child abuse. The Republican’s current target is Fresno City Council Speaker Nelson Esparza, who is charged with suspected extortion.

What did Esparza do to put himself in the crosshairs of Smittcamp’s public integrity unit, which wrote the warrant for his arrest?

Esparza threatened to fire former Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan, according to the affidavit, telling Sloan during a one-on-one meeting on April 22, “I’m just going to cut to the chase. I stand between you and you lose your job. Now you only work for the majority of the board.

Sloan provided this version of events to two Fresno County District Attorney investigators working under Smittcamp. Sloan’s testimony, along with that of three people who corroborated his story, form the evidence used to indict Esparza.

In his only public comments on the matter at Fresno’s July 21 city council meeting, Esparza denied any “wrongdoing in this building” and vowed to continue as council chairman despite the accusations looming over him. above him.

A more specific denial emerged in a defamation lawsuit since withdrawn Esparza filed against fellow Council member Garry Bredefeld. It read as follows: “At no time did plaintiff Esparza order, direct, imply or suggest to Mr. Sloan that he should only work for “the majority” of the Council or only for certain members of the Council to the exclusion of any other.”

As this was a private tete-a-tete, it is impossible to determine who is telling the truth. Which makes this Esparza’s word against Sloan’s – and just because Sloan recited an almost identical story to three co-workers after the fact doesn’t make his story any more believable. It just shows that he is careful.

Nor does it matter that Sloan left Fresno for a similar position in Santa Monica soon after. Sloan told investigators he was “already” talking to his new city of employment. After 16 years in Fresno, the last nine as city attorney, this might just be the boost he needed.

What we are left with is a dispute between lawyer and politician. Good luck separating personal biases from that one.

Criminal extortion or political hardball?

Suppose Esparza said those words, and precisely the way Sloan claims. Does this really constitute extortion, or just the kind of tough politics that goes on in City Hall behind closed doors all the time?

I won’t pretend to be a lawyer, but the answer is not unequivocal.

Even those of us who don’t have framed law degrees on our office walls know that in any court, prosecutors must prove their charges beyond a reasonable doubt. But unless Smittcamp investigators have a secret recording that no one knows about, it will ultimately come down to the opposing words of two individuals.

Which seems to be the basis of a reasonable doubt.

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Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, left, and former Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan. (stock photos of bees)

Smittcamp needs to understand that too, just as she had to realize three years ago that she didn’t have the evidence to successfully sue Arambula for child abuse.

But that hasn’t stopped Smittcamp from trying — to use her office to tarnish the reputation of a popular second-generation local lawmaker across the political aisle.

Smittcamp’s strategy did not achieve the expected results. Since beating child abuse charges, Arambula was overwhelmingly re-elected to the California State Assembly in 2020 and is favored to win a fourth term in November. Arambula is rumored to be in the front line to succeed Congressman Jim Costa, possibly as early as 2024.

Clear Pattern by Fresno County DA

On the contrary, Arambula’s legal entanglement only seemed to embolden him. The Fresno Democrat helped lead the successful campaign for medical coverage for all Californians, regardless of age or immigration status. He also drafted bills that remove Republican authority over the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (for redistricting purposes) and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Having failed to remove Arambula or bring charges against Fresno council members for alleged Brown Law violations related to Granite Park (despite his efforts to publicly insinuate their guilt), Smittcamp made Esparza his last target.

As stated in Fresno’s city charter, the council has clear authority over the city attorney. So Esparza, as chairman of the board, was basically Sloan’s direct supervisor. Esparza’s choice of words while reprimanding a subordinate may not have been exemplary, but to call this crime an extortion is overkill.

Know who would agree? Sloan himself. In an op-ed published this week by GV Wire, Sloan wrote that he “never intended or wished for this matter to be made public, let alone prosecuted.” (Sloan also claimed he “doesn’t remember” calling Esparza a “millennial piss” in a later conversation with Fresno manager Georgeanne White.)

“It’s unfortunate that this happened,” Sloan wrote, “and even more unfortunate that some people try to use the circumstances for political or personal gain.”

Sloan never mentions Smittcamp by name. But it’s pretty clear who he’s referring to.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on current affairs, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a graduate of UC Davis and a lifelong Sierra romp. He welcomes the talk with readers but does not suffer from fools or trolls.

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