Reports from investigators describe an elaborate scheme allegedly hatched by a Merced contractor and a Los Banos school district trustee that investigators believe was fueled, at least in part, by the contractor’s desire for revenge against the former Los Banos schools superintendent.
Copies of case reports by the Merced County District Attorney Bureau of Investigations were obtained by the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterpirse.
The reports detail conversations between contractor Greg Opinski, trustee Tommy Jones and Dominic Falasco, another school district trustee who, prosecutors have said, worked with investigators and secretly recorded the conversations to uncover the alleged plot between September 2015 and May.
Opinski and Jones both face multiple felony counts of bribing public officials, and are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Merced Superior Court. Jones and Opinski were arrested in August following a 10-month investigation.
The reports say Falasco allegedly was bribed by Opinski for his vote on three matters: getting rid of former Los Banos Unified School District Superintendent Steve Tietjen, replacing the district’s law firm with one of Opinski’s choosing and hiring Opinski for the district’s $6 million to $7 million Mercey Springs Elementary School expansion project.
According to the investigation, Falasco was identified by Jones and Opinski as the “swing vote” on the board.
Falasco was arrested and charged with drug possession in an unrelated incident during the investigation. According to the reports, Falasco used that situation to express a financial need to Opinski, according to reports.
On the direction of investigators, Falasco accepted $12,000 from Jones on behalf of Opinski. The money was confiscated by authorities as evidence, the reports say.
According to the reports, video and audio recordings show that Opinski was incensed that Tietjen recommended other contractors and not his company for school projects.
During the investigation, on several instances Opinski claimed that Tietjen was “in bed” with law firms and contractors the district was using at the time for construction projects, according to the reports.
The reports also say Opinski drafted statements, language for legal motions, items for board meeting agendas, and directions for Jones and Falasco to hire a law firm, Herr, Pedersen & Berglund LLP, that would investigate Tietjen’s involvement and interests in the construction financing of Creekside Junior High School.
Messages left at Opinski’s business weren’t answered Thursday. Court records don’t indicate whether Opinski has hired an attorney.
Tietjen, in an interview Thursday, said he wouldn’t comment on Opinski’s accusations against him, or the alleged efforts to remove him from the district. He did say he based all of his recommendations for contractors on a combination of a builder’s experience and costs.
Jones referred questions to attorney Kevin Little. On Thursday, Little said Jones intends to assert his innocence, but declined to comment on details mentioned in reports from investigators.
“The only thing I can say is based on my estimation, those reports and video leave out a lot of important information that will come to light as this develops,” Little said.
‘Hurting for cash right now’
According to the reports, Falasco reported to investigators in early October that Jones may have attempted to bribe him when Jones visited Falasco’s home on Sept. 23, 2015.
Falasco said Jones, during the unannounced visit, set a magazine down and told Falasco to read it, according to the reports.
Later, Falasco picked up the magazine and an envelope slipped out. Inside the envelope was $1,500 in cash, the reports say.
Falasco said he initially believed the money might have been payment for past legal work Falasco had done. However, Jones later told Falasco the cash was “spending money” from Opinski for a school board conference, reports say.
The District Attorney’s Office fitted Falasco with recording devices and he attended several meetings during the next 10 months with Opinski, Jones or both, prosecutors have said.
During those meetings, Jones and Opinski made several references about paying Falasco for his vote, the reports say.
At a Jan. 22 meeting, Opinski told Falasco, “You support me, I will support you. You know what I mean?” according to the reports.
He added, “It’s a small circle, these school boards and how they communicate with each other and getting me … well also there will be opportunities for you to help me in other places and certainly compensate you for that but that’s life,” according to the reports.
“That’s the way it works,” Opinski says in the reports. “That’s just the way the public sector works so …” according to the reports.
During an April 16 meeting, after Falasco’s drug arrest, the two met outside the Los Banos Municipal Airport office.
“You know I need this work in Los Banos,” Opinski says in the reports. “What can I do to help you so you help me?”
Falasco told Opinski that he was “hurting for cash right now.”
Three days later, Falasco met with Jones. He told Jones he wanted a total of $20,000 to follow through with plans to remove the superintendent, replace the district’s lawyers, and to award the Mercey Springs contract to Opinski, the reports say.
On April 23, Jones met Falasco and said Opinski’s counteroffer was $12,000 for all three tasks, the reports say.
On April 25, Jones gave Falasco $3,000, considered a down payment, according to the reports.
Following the May 12 board meeting, in which the Mercey Springs project was successfully awarded to Opinski, Jones gave Falasco $8,000, which was $1,000 short. The next day Falasco met with Opinski to determine why the money was short, according to the reports.
Opinski suspected that he was being recorded, and asked Falasco if he was taking money from anybody else, the reports say.
After Falasco assured him he wasn’t being recorded, Opinski thanked Falasco for his help and told him to talk to Jones, the reports say.
On May 26, Jones paid Falasco the final $1,000, according to the reports.
Investigators examine phone records
Trustee Marlene Smith was also present during one of the recorded conversations, reports show, although she didn’t contribute much to the discussion.
Reports indicate law firm partners Leonard Herr and Rachelle Berglund also met with Opinski, Jones and Falasco.
According to the reports, investigators received search warrants for cellphone records for Jones, Opinski, Falasco, Smith, Duffy and the law firm of Herr, Pedersen & Berglund.
The phone records show that between Sept. 25, 2015, and May 15, 2016, the period in which most of the meetings took place, Jones contacted Opinski 317 times, Falasco 299 times, Smith 509 times and Duffy 73 times, according to the reports.
Jones also contacted the law firm of Herr, Pedersen & Berglund nine times.
Calls to Smith and Duffy seeking comment weren’t answered Thursday. Messages left with the law offices of Herr, Pedersen & Berglund requesting comment Thursday also did not get a response.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562