Former Los Banos school trustee Tommy Jones and Merced area contractor Greg Opinski were ordered to stand trial Thursday on felony charges, nearly a year after they were arrested in a case involving secretly recorded conversations and allegations of bribery and public corruption.
Opinski and Jones have pleaded not guilty in connection with the alleged payoff of ex-school board trustee Dominic Falasco, a career criminal defense attorney from a prominent Los Banos family. Prosecutors say Opinski and Jones worked together and paid Falasco $12,000 to secure his vote to award a pricey construction contract to a company owned by Opinski.
Falasco, however, was working essentially undercover with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office. He secretly recorded a string of conversations over a 10-month period in 2015 and 2016 that prosecutors have said expose the bribe for sweetheart deals and favors for Opinski.
During a preliminary hearing that started Wednesday, Steve Slocum, the Merced County Supervising Deputy District Attorney prosecuting the case, presented text messages along with audio and video recordings of meetings between Jones, Opinski and Falasco. Prosecutors said Falasco used specialized audio and video recording equipment, including a key fob, coffee mug and cell phone.
Slocum presented a timeline he said shows Jones and Opinski bribing Falasco with $12,000 for his votes to get rid of the school’s legal counsel and superintendent, along with voting for Opinski as the construction manager of the $6 million to $7 million expansion of Mercey Springs Elementary School.
The meetings highlighted in the hearing included a Jan. 22, 2016, meeting between Opinski and Falasco, in which the prosecution said Opinski first bribed Falasco.
They also include several meetings Falasco had with Opinski and Jones.
Conversations about the Mercey Springs project also were captured on tape in February 2016 in a discussion prosecutors have said involved Opinski, Jones, Falasco and a fourth person.
Anna Hazel, the lead investigator on the case, testified on Thursday that the fourth voice heard in the recorded conversation was school board Trustee Marlene Smith, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing in the case.
Smith repeatedly has denied any involvement and said she was not there. That denial drew a strong rebuke late last year from District Attorney Larry Morse II, who said Smith repeatedly “lied” to the public and “stonewalled” the investigation.
Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment.
During the preliminary hearing, Jones’ lawyer, Kevin Little, and Opinski’s lawyer, Jeff Hammerschmidt, argued the recorded conversations played in court didn’t tell the full story and were taken out of context to paint a picture darker than the reality. They suggested Falasco planned to vote to award the contract to Opinski’s firm because, the attorneys claimed, Falasco believed it was the right decision.
The recorded meetings were enough to convince visiting Santa Clara County Judge Leslie Nichols to order Jones and Opinski to stand trial on the felony charges.
Nichols also denied motions by the defense counsel to dismiss the District Attorney’s Office, and to dismiss the case.
Jones and Opinski are scheduled to be arraigned at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 10 at Merced Superior Court.
Slocum said he will ask for a “speedy trial” to bring the start of the trial within 60 days of the arraignment.
Defense attorneys, however, suggested they may challenge the move because they believe more time is needed to prepare their defense following new information obtained during the preliminary hearing. They didn’t elaborate.
Jones and Opinski remain free on bail.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562