Crime

Ex-Los Banos Mayor Tommy Jones arrested on bribery charges

Los Banos Unified School District trustee Tommy Jones leaves Merced County Jail Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, shortly after surrendering himself to authorities. He was being sought on bribery allegations.
Los Banos Unified School District trustee Tommy Jones leaves Merced County Jail Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, shortly after surrendering himself to authorities. He was being sought on bribery allegations. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Tommy Jones, a school board trustee and former Los Banos mayor embroiled in an alleged public corruption scandal, surrendered to authorities Wednesday, a day after he was described as a fugitive by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.

Jones, 68, was booked into the Merced County Jail at 10:35 a.m., posted bail and was released from custody just before 1:30 p.m., according to Merced County Sheriff’s Office records.

The arrest came after a 10-month investigation that also led to the arrest of construction manager Greg Opinski. Jones and Opinski are alleged to have bribed at least one trustee of the Los Banos Unified School District to award a contract to Opinski’s company.

Prosecutors have said Opinski and Jones paid trustee Dominic Falasco to vote in favor of awarding the $541,000 construction contract to Opinski’s company. Falasco, however, was cooperating with investigators and recorded “more than 10” conversations over about 10 months among himself, Jones and Opinski, according to authorities.

Standing outside the jail Wednesday, Jones’ attorney, Kevin Little, told reporters his client intends to fight the criminal charges.

“Mr. Jones is insisting on his innocence and he is going to meet these charges in the court of law, not in the court of public opinion,” Little said. “This is a political issue and there were no crimes committed. That is my client’s very firm position.”

Little said the case was presented to a judge to issue a warrant and prosecutors hadn’t reviewed evidence in the case.

“I must emphasize, at the time this story was released to the public, neither the defense counsel nor the prosecutors had seen these allegations,” Little told reporters Wednesday.

District Attorney Larry Morse II, however, said that simply wasn’t true and described Little’s statements as “profoundly mistaken.” The case was investigated by Morse’s office.

“I have no idea where he would’ve gotten such an outlandish idea,” Morse said in a telephone interview. “The reports were reviewed thoroughly by our attorneys throughout this investigation.”

Prosecutors on Wednesday formally filed criminal complaints against both men, according to Steve Slocum, the supervising deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. Slocum also confirmed reviewing case reports throughout the criminal probe, which was led by DA investigator Anna Hazel.

Opinski is charged with attempting to bribe a public official on Jan. 22 and again on April 16. Opinski and Jones both are charged with bribing an official on April 24 and again on May 12, prosecutors confirmed.

Opinski also faces a felony count of aiding and abetting a conflict of interest between January and May of this year, prosecutors said.

Jones, if convicted, faces up to five years in state prison and Opinski faces up to seven years in prison, if convicted.

Court dates for both men could not be confirmed Wednesday.

Morse earlier this week said Falasco came forward with information about the alleged corruption in October, prompting Morse’s office to open an investigation. Falasco began recording conversations secretly using equipment provided by the district attorney’s office. “It’s fair to say that without Mr. Falasco, none of this would have come to light,” Morse said.

Speaking earlier this week with the Merced Sun-Star, Falasco said he was relieved the investigation had come to an end.

“I was pretty insulted that they’d think I was up for sale,” Falasco said.

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 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.

Prosecutors and Falasco have said the vote he cast that night was part of his cooperation with the district attorney’s office.

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.

The Los Banos school board was expected to meet Wednesday evening to re-examine the contract issue, a trustee confirmed. Details of that meeting were not available before press time. Visit the Merced Sun-Star website for the latest details or read about it in Friday’s edition.

Opinski also is a trustee on the Merced Union High School board and, earlier this year, Opinski briefly was a candidate for the state Legislature, running against incumbent Adam Gray, D-Merced. Opinski, however, dropped out of the race in May, though his name remains on the ballot.

Opinski was arrested Monday and bailed out. He has not responded to requests for comment on the case.

Prosecutors on Monday also issued a warrant for Jones’ arrest, after they said he refused to come in on his own. On Tuesday, the prosecutor’s office described Jones as a “fugitive.”

Little said Jones was traveling to take care of family business and arrived in Merced County on Wednesday. Little said they contacted the district attorney’s office through email, phone and fax letting it know he would turn himself in Wednesday. The prosecutor’s office said it never received any such communications.

“Nobody is trying to avoid these charges,” Little said. “Mr. Jones is anxious to confront these in court.”

On Wednesday morning, Little’s office told ABC 30 that Jones would be at the district attorney’s office at 10:30 a.m. Instead, waiting reporters there learned that, at that time, Jones was several blocks away, surrendering at the Merced Jail, far from the view of their cameras.

Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482

Monica Velez: 209-385-2486, mvelez@mercedsunstar.com

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