Crime

Opinski avoids jail after pleading guilty in Merced County corruption probe

Gregory Opinski, a local contractor, was taken into jail custody Tuesday but was immediately released with an ankle monitor weeks after he pleaded guilty to giving money to an elected official in a corruption probe, according to court records and officials.

Opinski was previously sentenced to 180 days in Merced County Jail for his part in a scheme prosecutors had described as bribing former Los Banos school board member Dominic Falasco $12,000 for the elected official’s deciding vote that awarded Opinski’s company a controversial construction contract to double the size of Mercey Springs Elementary.

Opinski also received three years probation as part of a plea deal. In exchange for pleading guilty to a single felony charge of aiding and abetting an official to become financially interested in a contract, multiple charges of bribing public officials were dropped.

But retired Santa Clara Judge Leslie C. Nichols finalized Opinski’s sentence by allowing him supervised released on an ankle monitor, court officials said.

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Visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols talks during a hearing Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Merced Superior Court in which Merced area contractor Greg Opinski pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

“The end result is that all of the bribery charges were dismissed and that Mr. Opinski will not serve any time in jail as part of his probationary sentence,” said Jeffrey Hammerschmidt, Opinski’s attorney.

In the plea agreement read by Nichols on March 26, Opinski admitted to giving co-defendant Tommy Jones, another Los Banos school board member, $12,000, which was then given to Falasco.

Falasco was at the time working secretly with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, recording conversations he had with Opinski and Jones over a 10-month period in 2015 and 2016, according to investigation reports.

In his plea, Opinski also admitted he had a financial interest in the contract when he gave Jones the money.

In Jones’ plea agreement, Jones claimed he received the money from Opinski as a bribe to Falasco. Jones previously pleaded to a misdemeanor version of Opinski’s charge and received probation but no jail time in exchange for testifying against Opinski if the case went to trial.

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Greg Opinski, a Merced area contractor, listens to visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols during a hearing Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. He pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

The supervised release for Opinski was a much lighter sentence than the seven years in prison he was facing when first arrested in August 2016.

During a news conference announcing Opinski’s arrest in 2016, former District Attorney Larry Morse II characterized the ex-Merced high school district board member’s actions as a major breach of the public’s “sacred trust.”

“To use that position to line one’s pockets is an affront to democratic government and violates our most basic obligations to those we serve,” Morse said at the conference.

Nichols, during the March 26 hearing in which Opinski’s plea agreement was accepted, also noted the severity of Opinski’s conduct and questioned a lighter sentence, claiming that the contractor’s acts were “a violation of public trust” that carried a possible sentence of three years in prison.

Merced County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Nicole Silveira, the lead prosecutor in the case, defended the District Attorney’s Office’s pursuit of a 180-day jail sentence. She noted Opinski had no prior record, wasn’t a danger to anyone and was willing to comply with probation requests.

Silveira also mentioned the Los Banos school district terminated Opinski’s contract after learning of his arrest, and before much of the harm of the crime took place.

District Attorney Kimberly Lewis said her office looks at several factors when determining didn’t answer questions about why her office argued for a lighter sentence.

Questions about potentially problematic issues in prosecutors’ case brought up by Opinski and Jones’ lawyers, including the credibility of Falasco as a key witness and the authenticity of audio recordings, also weren’t answered.

“This case reaffirms the Merced County District Attorney’s Office’s stand against public corruption,” Lewis says in a statement sent in response to the questions. “Both defendants have taken responsibility for their role in the crime. These convictions ensure the integrity of local government and bring closure for citizens of Merced County to a long-running case.”

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Tommy Jones, a former Los Banos mayor and school board trustee, listens to visiting Judge Leslie C. Nichols during a hearing Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Merced Superior Court. He was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to aiding and abetting an elected official to become financially interested in a contract. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com
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