Hours after Los Banos Unified school board trustee Tommy Jones was released on bond Wednesday, the board voted 5-0 to cancel a hotly disputed construction contract at the center of a criminal investigation into alleged payoffs involving him and the contractor who was awarded the project last month.
Jones, who surrendered at the Merced jail on Wednesday morning, is alleged to have bribed a public official on at least two occasions earlier this year.
Jones and construction manager Greg Opinski have been accused of paying off at least one board member to vote in favor of awarding Opinski’s company, OP Development Inc., the contract to add 15 classrooms to Mercey Springs Elementary School.
Opinski, who is a member of the Merced Union High School District board of trustees, was arrested Monday, the same day the Merced County District Attorney’s Office announced its investigation into alleged bribery and corruption.
The Los Banos board called Wednesday’s meeting in the wake of the arrests to discuss the Mercey Springs contract, which had been approved on a 4-3 vote during a July 26 special meeting.
Prior to the board’s vote to terminate the deal Wednesday evening, three residents urged them to do so.
Jason Walsh, a history teacher at Los Banos Junior High, angrily described the contract as a “blatant attack” on and an “absolute betrayal” of the city’s schoolchildren.
Trustees John Mueller and Dennis Areias, both among the most outspoken critics of the deal prior to its approval, said they were pleased the district was able to stop the contract before money changed hands. Both previously had questioned whether something underhanded was involved in awarding the contract to Opinski, choosing him over a firm that had been recommended by a board committee.
“I think the kids of Los Banos finally got some justice,” Mueller said after the meeting.
Areias said the contract formally ends 14 days from Wednesday and said the board would then restart the process of finding a contractor to complete the expansion, which district officials say is needed to accommodate rapid growth in enrollment.
Areias reasserted his belief that Opinski won the contract unfairly. He also noted that Opinski presented the school district with a bill for about 345 hours worth of work said to have accrued before the contract was awarded. He said in his 18 years of involvement in public schools, he’d never seen a bill presented for work done before a contract was in place.
Areias said the bill amounted to about $84,000.
In the July 26 vote, Jones had been among the four board members to support the contract, aligning with fellow trustees Carole Duffy, Marlene Smith and Dominic Falasco. It was opposed then by Mueller, Areias and Anthony Parreira.
Prosecutors say Falasco was the one who brought the allegations of bribery to their attention in October, leading to an investigation that had the trustee secretly record conversations with Opinski and Jones. Prosecutors and Falasco say the vote he cast in favor of the contract was part of his cooperation with the District Attorney’s Office.
Jones and Duffy recused themselves from the board’s decision Wednesday. Jones told the Sun-Star he abstained because he believed it was the right thing to do in light of the criminal allegations he faces. Jones’ attorney, Kevin Little, has said his client maintains his innocence and plans to fight the criminal charges vigorously.
Duffy said she recused herself because Little has been her attorney for several years, representing her in various legal matters, and she believed the fact she and Jones have the same attorney could present a conflict of interest.
She told the Sun-Star that, after receiving several telephone calls from constituents, she also would have voted to terminate the contract with Opinski.
Duffy also said that, acting on Little’s legal advice, she chose not to speak with an investigator from the District Attorney’s Office who came to her home Tuesday to interview her regarding the Opinski contract.
Little did not respond to a telephone call or an email message seeking comment.
District Attorney Larry Morse II declined to say whether Duffy, or anyone else on the board, was under investigation.
“We’ve said from the start, the investigation is still underway,” Morse said. “We can neither confirm nor deny anyone who may be subject to additional investigation.”
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482