Crime

What’s going on with evidence in Merced County corruption case? Trial delayed - again

tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

The bribery case against Merced contractor Gregory Opinski and former Los Banos school trustee Tommy Jones has been delayed for the second time.

Visiting Judge Leslie Nichols on Monday pushed the trial date and jury selection to March 4, 2019, after Jones’ attorney, Kevin Little, and Opinski’s attorney, Jeff Hammerschmidt, requested more evidence from prosecutors and more time to review the evidence.

“This matter has been pending for quite some time,” said Nichols, a retired Santa Clara judge who was selected to preside over the case after several Merced County judges recused themselves. He said scheduling issues between himself and attorneys also have played a part in the delays.

It’s the second time the trial has been delayed due to new information being discovered close to the trial date. The original court date of Feb. 27 was continued to Oct. 16 after there was “compelling cause” to delay the trial because of “recently disclosed info” about an unnamed witness, according to prosecutors.

Now, the jury selection won’t take place until 917 days after Merced County authorities arrested Opinski on Aug. 29, 2016. Jones was arrested days later.

Opinski and Jones have pleaded not guilty to allegations they bribed former Los Banos school trustee Dominic Falasco with $12,000 for his swing vote on the school board for three board actions, one of which was hiring Opinski as the construction manager for the major expansion of a Los Banos elementary school.

Prosecutors have said Falasco worked with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office to surreptitiously record conversations he had with Opinski and Jones over a 10-month span in 2015 and 2016.

Defense attorneys filed a motion to delay the jury trial because they haven’t received the full, original recordings of those conversations from prosecutors.

“It’s highly unusual to get this close to trial and have this much information not provided,” said Hammerschmidt, who repeatedly pressed the Merced County District Attorney’s Office to provide more evidence through discovery.

The defense attorneys hired a forensic analyst to investigate the recordings they were provided by the prosecution in discovery. The forensic analyst, Texas-based Barry G. Dickey, states in a declaration filed with Hammerschmidt’s motion that several of the recordings “are not true and accurate native versions of the files.”

After talks between both sides, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office announced the revelation of additional data that wasn’t provided in initial discovery because it wasn’t known until Aug. 13.

In her response to Hammerschmidt and Little’s motions, Merced County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Nicole Silveira said the District Attorney’s Office has provided the defense with the evidence they have requested.

Nichols acknowledged the bribery case was now a “considerably delayed case,” and that it has “gone far too long” without a resolution.

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