A Merced contractor and former Los Banos school board member pleaded not guilty Wednesday to public corruption charges, nearly six months after they were arrested on bribery allegations.
Gregory Opinski, 54, owner of Greg Opinski Construction, and Tommy Jones, 68, a veteran politician from Los Banos who recently was ousted from his seat on the city’s school board, entered their pleas early Wednesday before Judge Paul C. Lo in Merced Superior Court.
Opinski and Jones were arrested in August following a 10-month investigation by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office. Investigators said Jones paid fellow school board trustee Dominic Falasco $12,000 on behalf of Opinski to make three key swing votes. One of those votes approved Opinski as the construction manager for a project to double the size of Mercey Springs Elementary School.
Falasco, however, was working secretly with the prosecutor’s office as a key witness in the case and recorded multiple conversations between himself, Jones and Opinski, prosecutors have said.
Opinski, who also sits on the Merced Union High School District school board and was briefly a candidate for the state assembly, is facing four felony counts of bribing public officials, one felony count of aiding and abetting an official in becoming financially invested in a project, and a felony count of conflict of interest.
Jones is charged with two felony counts of bribing public officials and one felony count of conflict of interest.
Lo comes to the case after defense attorneys filed a string of motions seeking to remove Judge Ronald W. Hansen from hearing the case.
Jones’ attorney, Kevin Little, had argued to remove Hansen from the case, alleging the longtime judge had a conflict of interest. Hansen previously disclosed that he and Opinski were once part of the same stock investment club but that the two have had almost no interactions or direct interests apart from that.
The defense has said the connection amounted to a perceived conflict of interest and merited Hansen recusing himself from the case. But Hansen has ruled that it doesn’t and won’t affect his judgment.
Late last week Little filed a peremptory challenge to force Hansen off the case and indicated he believed the move necessary for Jones and Opinski to receive a fair trial. The case subsequently was reassigned to Lo.
Steve Slocum, the supervising deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said he was ready to move forward with the court process.
“We’re willing to prosecute this case before any judge the court assigns and are prepared to move forward with Judge Lo presiding,” Slocum said after Wednesday’s hearing.
Jeffrey Hammerschmidt, the defense attorney representing Opinski, said during Wednesday’s hearing he still had not received all the of the evidence in the case from prosecutors, a claim Slocum flatly denied in court.
“Both (attorneys) have received all the evidence we plan to use in the case,” Slocum told the judge. The prosecutor then urged the defense attorneys to file a motion to argue the issue further in court.
Hammerschmidt said he sent written requests in October seeking documentation of a meeting he said occurred between Opinski and District Attorney Larry Morse II. The defense attorney said he also sent written requests in November seeking “forensic data from Mr. Opinski’s cellphone, which was taken by law enforcement.”
“As of the time I appeared in court (Wednesday), there had been absolutely no response to these requests. Having spent 12 years as a prosecutor, I understand the prosecution team’s duty to provide discovery and to respond to discovery requests,” Hammerschmidt said in an email to the Merced Sun-Star. “I was shocked and dismayed at their complete failure to respond.”
Slocum told the Sun-Star prosecutors have been “diligent in discovering all relevant evidence we intend to use in trial.”
“I’ll take up any allegations of failing to discover any relevant evidence through the proper channels through motions in court,” Slocum said.
Little did not immediately respond Wednesday to emails seeking comment.
The judge set a preliminary hearing for March 27. He also ordered both sides to return to court March 6 to hash out the defense claims regarding evidence in the case.
Also during the March 6 hearing, Lo said, the court may consider arguments from the California attorney general’s office regarding the possible suspension or revocation of Opinski’s contracting license.
The Contractors’ State License Board filed a complaint against Opinski in connection with the same bribery and corruption allegations filed in the criminal case.
Jones and Opinski remain free on bail.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482