Public corruption case ends with agreement on guilty plea
STORY UPDATE / CLARIFICATION (May 2, 2019)
Bribery charges against Opinski dismissed
Local contractor Greg Opinski and his lawyer Jeffrey Hammerschmidt are seeking to clarify details regarding local media reports about a recent plea agreement in court.
Opinski received probation and will spend no time in jail as part of a plea agreement in which he admitted to a violation of the Government Code (Section 1090) in exchange for the dismissal of all bribery charges.
The plea agreement was entered into on March 4, 2019, and on that date, Opinski was sentenced to probation. On April 23, 2019, Judge Nichols finalized the terms of probation, under which Opinski will serve no time in jail, but instead will spend 180 days on an electronic monitor.
Opinski and Hammerschmidt point out that the investigation conducted by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office began on Oct. 5, 2015, just five days after Mr. Opinski went to the FBI in Fresno as a whistleblower regarding government fraud and the misuse of taxpayer dollars that involved illegal lease-leaseback contracts for the building of schools. Upon request, the FBI provided to Mr. Opinski’s counsel, Jeff Hammerschmidt, the redacted report.
“The facts strongly suggest that Mr. Opinski was working to gather information to provide to the FBI as evidence of fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars, and in doing so he violated Government Code Section 1090. This violation, unlike the dismissed bribery charges, requires no illegal or fraudulent intent,” Hammerschmidt said.
(The original version of this March 28 story has been updated to clarify that Greg Opinski did not admit to bribery.)
During a court proceeding on Tuesday, March 26, local developer Greg Opinski changed his plea to guilty on a single felony charge of “aiding and abetting an official to become financially interested in a contract.”
Opinski was a central figure in a two-year legal battle surrounding the Los Banos Unified School District and a bribery scheme to secure a construction contract in 2016.
Other charges were dropped in exchange for Opinski’s plea, and the Merced County District Attorney’s Office recommended a sentence of 180 days in county jail and probation. His sentencing hearing is set for April 23.
Opinski and former school board member Tommy Jones were charged with bribing former LBUSD trustee Dominic Falasco for Falasco’s swing vote on three board actions — including hiring Opinski as the construction manager for an expansion project at Mercey Springs Elementary School. As part of a 10-month investigation by the D.A.’s Office, Falasco secretly recorded interactions with Jones and Opinski.
Earlier this year, Jones also accepted a plea agreement on a single misdemeanor count of “aiding and abetting a school board member in becoming financially interested in a contract.” Jones then came to an agreement with prosecutors to testify against Opinski, according to court reports.
According to a correction in the Merced Sun-Star regarding the newspaper’s report about the March 26 hearing, Opinski “did not admit to bribery.”
In the plea agreement read by Judge Leslie Nichols, according to the Sun-Star, Opinski admitted to giving co-defendant Tommy Jones, another Los Banos school board member, $12,000, which was then given to Falasco. In his plea, the Sun-Star reported, Opinski also admitted he had a financial interest in the contract when he gave Jones the money.
In the sentencing recommendation, it was noted that Opinski had no prior record and was willing to comply with his probation terms.
In previous interviews with the Times, Opinski was outspoken about his own attempts to fight what he called widespread corruption in the region regarding controversial lease-leaseback strategies and “pay-to-play” deals allegedly behind big school district construction contracts in the region for a decade or more.
Opinski showed the Times billing documents and other evidence that he said proved construction contracts involving the building of Pacheco High School, Creekside Junior High, and the expansion at Mercey Springs were overloaded with money for the work that was required. He claimed fraud in the bidding process to award the contracts that were headed up by companies based in other counties. And he said his concerns and complaints over the years were pooh-poohed by the DA and certain school board members.
On Sept. 23, 2015, Falasco reportedly met with District Attorney Larry Morse and said Jones may have attempted to bribe him with cash that was later linked to Opinski.
On Sept. 29, Opinski traveled to an FBI office in Fresno where he detailed his concerns about lease-leaseback contracts in the region.
Five days later, on Oct. 5, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office reportedly started the political fraud investigation that ended up with Opinski and Jones being arrested in August of 2016 after the Mercey Springs contract was awarded.
Opinski’s attorney, Jeff Hammerschmidt, later criticized how the probe started and said it should have been handled by an outside law enforcement agency. Hammerschmidt also hammered away at issues regarding “gaps” in the secret recordings made by Falasco.
Also, Hammerschmidt said Falasco — who also works as lawyer — was not even close to being a credible witness following a series of indiscretions, including a drug arrest and a State Bar suspension.
Falasco ended up losing re-election to the Los Banos school board.
Jones was sentenced Tuesday to probation and no jail time.
Opinski and his attorney declined immediate comment on the plea agreement, but reportedly plan to discuss the case after the April sentencing hearing.