Crime

Warrant issued for Los Banos school board member, Merced contractor arrested on bribery charges

Tommy Jones
Tommy Jones Los Banos Enterprise file photo

Greg Opinski, a Merced Union High School District board member and owner of Greg opinski Construction, was arrested Monday on suspicion of bribing a public official and a warrant has been issued for school board trustee and former Los Banos mayor Tommy Jones, law enforcement sources confirmed to the Sun-Star.

Opinski, 53, is accused of paying off at least one trustee with the Los Banos Unified School board in connection with the controversial expansion project at Mercey Springs Elementary School, the official confirmed.

An arrest warrant also has been issued for Jones, according to the Merced County District Attorney Office. Jones has been in contact with the District Attorney’s Office Monday by telephone. He has been encouraged to surrender to the authorities, officials said.

Jones, 68, will be charged with two counts of bribery in connection with the same case, District Attorney Larry Morse II told the Sun-Star.

Reached by telephone 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, said he couldn’t comment on details of the case, saying he hasn’t seen the warrant.

“I can say that Mr. Jones intends to vigously 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 into authorities soon.

Jones is accused of trying to pay off Trustee Dominic Falasco, who Morse credited with exposing the alleged corruption.

“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 immediately 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, the source told the Sun-Star.

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 July 26, the board voted 4-3 to award Opinski a contract worth up to $541,208. The project has been estimated to cost the district $6 to $7 million. 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 Opinski.

Mueller, in an interview with the Sun-Star 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 2015.

The controversial decision to award the contract to Opinski drew heat from several residents and former board members.

“I just can’t make sense of this,” Chau’an Menefee said at the meeting. “The only thing that I can assume is that there is some sort of funny business going on behind the scenes.”

Some trustees in Los Banos have openly questioned whether Opinski paid any trustees for their votes.

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

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

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.” However, Opinski’s name remains on the upcoming November ballot.

Areias suggested Opinski and Jones had a secret deal. Areias specifically asked Jones 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.

Jones, during that July meeting, remained silent. However, Jones previously denied having a relationship with Opinski during interviews with the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise.

“There was no relationship,” Jones said.

Mueller, during a board meeting in 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 boards of elected officials are to be held in California.

Jones, in an interview with the Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise, 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.

Jones, a longtime fixture in Los Banos politics, has been at the center of several controversies, and previously has landed in hot water over his relationships with developers. 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.

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

He was also 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.

This story will be updated.

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

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