Los Banos

Bribery probe targets Los Banos school board member, Merced contractor

A booking photo of Greg Opinski hangs on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016, during a news conference at the district attorney's office in Merced.
A booking photo of Greg Opinski hangs on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016, during a news conference at the district attorney's office in Merced. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Authorities on Monday arrested Greg Opinski, a prominent contractor and member of the Merced high school district school board, and issued a warrant for Los Banos school board trustee and former Mayor Tommy Jones as part of an investigation into bribes allegedly paid for a school construction project, authorities said.

Opinski, the 54-year-old owner of Greg Opinski Construction and a former candidate for the state Assembly, is accused of paying off at least one trustee of the Los Banos Unified School Board in connection with the controversial expansion of Mercey Springs Elementary School, according to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.

He was arrested Monday morning at his home in Merced. He was booked into the Merced County Jail at 9:30 a.m. and released on bond around noon, according to booking records.

District Attorney Larry Morse II said an arrest warrant was issued for Jones, whom authorities said they reached by telephone Monday and encouraged to surrender.

Opinski is alleged to have paid and offered bribes in exchange for support to win the contract to expand Mercey Springs, a project that is estimated to cost the district $6 million to $7 million.

According to Morse, Dominic Falasco, another school board member, secretly recorded numerous conversations over several months between himself, Opinski and Jones discussing the contract. Morse said Falasco came forward with information about the alleged corruption in October, prompting the District Attorney’s Office to open an investigation.

“Mr. Falasco brought this matter to my attention during a private meeting in October 2015,” Morse told the Sun-Star. “He cooperated with our investigators completely. It’s fair to say that without Mr. Falasco, none of this would have come to light.”

Falasco could not be reached for comment Monday.

Opinski faces two counts of bribery, two counts of attempted bribery and one felony count of aiding and abetting a conflict of interest with a public official. Jones, 68, will be charged with two counts of bribery in connection with the same case, prosecutors said.

Speaking to the Sun-Star by phone on Monday, Jones declined to comment on the investigation.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Jones said. “I’ll let my attorney handle those questions.”

His attorney, Kevin Little, declined to discuss details of the case, saying he had yet to see the warrant.

“I can say that Mr. Jones intends to vigorously defend himself and expects the truth will come, and he will be completely exonerated,” Little said in a telephone interview.

Little said he and Jones would work with the District Attorney’s Office and said Jones would turn himself in to authorities soon.

Morse, during the news conference on Monday, said prosecutors had not heard from Jones’ attorney.

Anna Hazel is the lead investigator in the case, which will be prosecuted by Supervising Deputy District Attorney Steve Slocum.

Key vote came at special meeting

The Los Banos Unified School District board of trustees on May 12 appointed Opinski to manage the expansion project, overruling a recommendation from the board facilities committee to hire Hanford-based Bush Construction.

During a special meeting called on July 26, the board voted 4-3 to award Opinski a contract worth up to $541,208. Trustees Carole Duffy and Marlene Smith voted with Jones and Falasco in favor of Opinski, while Trustees Dennis Areias, John Mueller and Anthony Parreira opposed it.

Morse confirmed that Falasco voted in the favor of awarding the contract to Opinski as part of his cooperation with the District Attorney’s Office.

My told gut told me there was something completely dishonest about what was happening and that it was hurting our children. What’s been going on with the board has been a complete sham, and now it all makes sense.

John Mueller, trustee Los Banos Unified School board

The project calls for the addition of 15 classrooms at the elementary school to meet “rapid student growth” within the school district, according to Dean Bubar, acting superintendent of schools and assistant superintendent of administrative services.

Bubar said he is working with attorneys to determine how the criminal probe may impact the project.

“It’s unclear to me at this point whether we still have a valid contract. I’m working with legal counsel to determine the best course of action,” Bubar said in a telephone interview.

Mueller, in an interview with the Sun-Star on Monday, said he “was not surprised at all” by news of criminal charges against Opinski and Jones.

“I give all the credit in the world to Dominic Falasco for exposing these people for exactly what they are,” Mueller told the Sun-Star.

Mueller said he hopes the board will review all decisions made since October.

Questions raised about Opinski

The controversial decision to award the contract to Opinski drew heat from several residents and former board members who noted that Opinski had a history of filing lawsuits, including one against the Los Banos school district.

During the July 26 meeting, one resident, Chau’an Menefee, spoke up to say the deal didn’t make sense. “The only thing that I can assume is that there is some sort of funny business going on behind the scenes.”

Some trustees openly questioned whether Opinski had paid for votes. Areias, earlier this month, suggested Opinski and Jones had a secret deal. Areias specifically questioned whether Jones had ever taken money under the table from Opinski and also asked whether Jones had paid another board member to secure a vote.

At the time, Jones declined to respond. In previous interviews with the Sun-Star, however, he denied having a relationship with Opinski.

In an interview earlier this month with the Sun-Star, Opinski flatly denied making payoffs, saying there was “absolutely no truth to anything like that” and described the allegations as “unbelievable.”

Mueller has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Opinski contract.

“My gut told me there was something completely dishonest about what was happening and that it was hurting our children,” Mueller said in a telephone interview. “What’s been going on with the board has been a complete sham, and now it all makes sense.”

It’s fair to say that without Mr. (Dominci) Falasco, none of this would have come to light.

District Attorney Larry Morse II

It was unclear whether Opinski’s company continued to work on the school as of Monday, Bubar said.

Areias, in a telephone interview Monday, said the construction work at Mercey Springs should stop immediately.

“I believe we need to stop that project right now,” Areias said. “All the contractors need to be removed now.”

Mueller, during a board meeting earlier this month, also questioned whether Jones violated the Ralph M. Brown Act while arranging the special meeting for July 26. The Brown Act is a state law regulating how meetings of boards of elected officials are to be held in California.

Jones, in an interview with the Sun-Star, denied violating the Brown Act, saying he only spoke with two board members about the special meeting, not three. He also said Falasco initially made the call to set up the meeting.

Opinski won election to the Merced Union High School District board of trustees in 2014, narrowly defeating Ida Johnson by just 33 votes, according to the Merced County Elections Office.

The president of the Merced Union High School District said Monday he didn’t expect Opinski’s arrest to immediately affect his status as a board member.

“The Merced UHSD Board of Trustees expects that Mr. Opinski will remain on the Board unless something changes. We expect him to participate in all upcoming meetings,” Trustee Richard Lopez said in a statement. “If Mr. Opinski cannot attend any upcoming meetings, we will operate as usual minus one trustee. Depending on the outcome of the charges against him, we will proceed with business as usual.”

Opinski briefly challenged Adam Gray for the 21st Assembly seat in the state Legislature, but dropped out in May, citing a need to focus on his “business and personal circumstances.” Opinski’s name, however, remains on the upcoming November ballot.

Jones, a longtime fixture in Los Banos politics, has been at the center of several controversies and previously landed in hot water over his relationships with another local developer. Jones failed to disclose loans he received as a private citizen in 2002 and 2003 from Ranchwood Homes developer Greg Hostetler.

In at least one instance, Jones failed to recuse himself from a vote when, under state law, he should have. On Jan. 19, 2005, Jones voted in favor of allowing Ranchwood to submit an annexation application for the 15-acre Village Green subdivision. The item passed on a 3-2 vote, according to Sun-Star archives.

Jones, in a 2008 interview, said he didn’t know he was supposed to report the loans.

He also was ordered by a Fresno federal court jury to pay $17,500 to a man whose microphone was cut off during a Los Banos City Council meeting in 2008.

Sun-Star reporters Vikaas Shanker, Thaddeus Miller and Brianna Calix contributed to this report.