Crime

Merced builder pleads guilty in Los Banos schools public corruption probe

Judge reads plea agreement of Greg Opinski

Visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols reads a plea agreement by Greg Opinski, who admits to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract.
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Visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols reads a plea agreement by Greg Opinski, who admits to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Gregory Opinski openly admitted to bribing a public official in his plea agreement. While Opinski admitted to paying former Los Banos school board members Tommy Jones and Dominic Falasco $12,000 for a construction project he had a financial stake in, he did not admit to bribery. He pleaded guilty to a felony charge of aiding and abetting a public official to become financially interested in a contract.

This story has been updated to reflect the correction and includes a statement from Opinski’s defense attorney Jeffrey Hammerschmidt.

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A Merced area contractor on March 26 pleaded guilty, bringing an end to a two-year public corruption probe that rocked the Los Banos Unified School District.

Greg Opinski, however, won’t be going to prison.

Opinski was initially charged with multiple felony counts of bribing former Los Banos Unified School District board member and prominent Merced County attorney Dominic Falasco. According to investigation reports, Falasco wore secret recording devices during several interactions with Opinski and fellow former school board member Tommy Jones as part of a 10-month undercover investigation into the bribery scheme.

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Greg Opinski, a Merced area contractor, listens to visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols during a hearing Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. He pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Opinski, a former Merced Union High School District trustee, at one point was possibly facing seven years in prison as he initially pleaded not guilty after his arrest on Aug. 29, 2016. Jones was facing five years for his role in transferring the money from Opinski to Falasco.

Then, last month, Jones cut a deal with prosecutors and agreed to testify against Opinski, according to court documents unsealed Tuesday.

Opinski’s attorneys on Monday came to an agreement with prosecutors to change his plea to guilty on a single felony charge of aiding and abetting an official to become financially interested in a contract.

In exchange, other charges were dropped and the Merced County District Attorney’s Office recommended a sentence of 180 days in county jail and probation. That 180-day sentence could turn into an alternate sentence with no jail time at his scheduled sentencing hearing on April 23.

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Visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols talks during a hearing Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Merced Superior Court in which Merced area contractor Greg Opinski pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Judge Leslie Nichols read Opinski’s plea agreement out loud in court Tuesday. In the statement, Opinski admitted to giving $12,000 to Jones and Falasco while he had a financial interest in obtaining a contract involving Mercey Springs Elementary School in Los Banos Unified.

The deal was a controversial topic for a deeply divided school district board. Former board member Dennis Areias became suspicious and asked Jones at a July 2016 board meeting if Jones had a secret deal with Opinski.

In interviews with the Sun-Star at the time, Jones and Opinski both vehemently denied the presence of a deal.

When the school district learned of Opinski and Jones’ role in the bribery scheme, the school board canceled his contract and gave the elementary school job to another contractor.

Nichols questioned the District Attorney’s Office recommendation for a lighter sentence, noting that Opinski’s acts were “a violation of public trust” and the felony charge had an upper term of three years in prison.

However, Merced County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Nicole Silveira noted Opinski had no prior record, wasn’t a danger to anyone and expressed a willingness to comply with probation terms.

Opinski’s attorney Jeffrey Hammerschmidt released a statement: “We are pleased that all three bribery charges were dismissed and that the case was successfully resolved for a government code violation.”

Jones also was sentenced Tuesday to probation and no jail time. He pleaded to a misdemeanor version of Opinski’s charge on Feb. 15.

Jones’ plea agreement, which had previously been sealed by Nichols to avoid giving Opinski an unfair trial, was unsealed Tuesday following Opinski’s plea. The agreement states that in addition to receiving the $12,000 from Opinski to bribe Falasco, Jones received an unspecified amount of additional money from Opinski.

Jones declined to answer questions after his sentencing hearing.

“Mr. Jones is happy and relieved to put this behind him and he’s excited to move on with his future,” said Nichelle Tostenrude, who represented Jones in court Tuesday.

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Tommy Jones, a former Los Banos mayor and school board trustee, listens to visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols during a hearing Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. He was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Silveira directed questions to Merced County District Attorney Kim Lewis. The District Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to requests for comment on prosecutors winning convictions in the community’s highest profile public corruption case in recent years.

The case has taken many turns since Opinski and Jones were arrested in August 2016.

The entire Merced Superior Court bench recused itself due to real or perceived conflicts of interest, leading to the selection of Nichols, a retired judge from Santa Clara County.

A trial has been delayed several times due to issues with evidence collection and concerns about the audio and video recordings taken by a key witness, Falasco.

Falasco, himself, has experienced a string of troubles since he lost re-election to the Los Banos school board, leading to Opinski and Jones’ lawyers saying he damaged his credibility as a witness.

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