Firm Build timeline

May 21, 2010 

1998: Firm Build launches as a program of the Merced County Housing Authority. The program allows the Housing Authority to modernize its stock of public housing while giving residents marketable skills.

1999: Firm Build becomes an independent nonprofit organization with tax-exempt status, with its own board of directors and management.

2001: Housing Authority wins $500,000 federal grant to train at-risk youth while renovating its housing. The grant money goes to Firm Build. That same year, Firm Build expands its operations beyond Housing Authority property, signing its first contract with the Merced County Office of Education to train young people at Valley Community School, a continuation school. It also starts work on private homes.

2004: Firm Build's program swells to nearly 60 students.

2005: MCOE negotiates the lease of a building at Castle Commerce Center for renovations by Firm Build into an automotive teaching center. There is no competitive bidding process. The lease says the building has asbestos, lead-based paint, black mold and groundwater contamination. It is signed by County Superintendent of Schools Lee Andersen and chairman of the Merced County Board of Supervisors Jerry O'Banion.

APRIL 2005: Firm Build's board is told of massive renovation plans at the automotive teaching center.

JUNE 25, 2005: An environmental management firm conducts a review of the site and finds asbestos.

JULY 2005: Firm Build files for a building permit at the Castle site. On the permit, the company says it will only do minimal work on the building.

JULY 2005: Firm Build doesn't fully disclose the extent of the building's renovation on a permit it files with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

SEPTEMBER 2005: Students start removing asbestos from the building at Castle.

DECEMBER 2005: Firm Build stops paying back a $300,000 loan it received from the Housing Authority.

2006: Early in the year Firm Build's finances begin to unravel after MCOE cuts back on its contract with the nonprofit. The firm stops paying rent on its Housing Authority-owned offices. Local officials begin receiving complaints about unfinished work and unpaid bills.

FEBRUARY 2006: A union electrician witnesses the removal of asbestos by young people at Castle without proper protection and tells his boss. A complaint is filed with the Air District.

FEBRUARY 2006: Firm Build pulls the students off the job for two weeks. A professional asbestos abatement team is sent in soon after.

FEBRUARY 2006: The air district inspects the building. But investigators find no evidence of permit violations. After the professional abatement is finished, high school students return to the job site to continue renovation work.

AUGUST 2006: Regional Occupation Program classes begin at the MCOE automotive training center despite the fact that a certificate of occupancy is never issued until more than two years later.

MAY 2007: Firm Build's financial woes worsen. It fails to get a $247,000 state grant. Work at Castle is halted, and the city of Atwater takes back the property.

JUNE 2007: Firm Build's leaders ask the Housing Authority for a $500,000 grant to save it from bankruptcy, but are denied. District attorney investigators start looking into Firm Build's financial troubles. Investigators find $700,000 in unpaid bills. A county inspector finds that the MCOE automotive training center hasn't passed a final inspection -- yet classes were already in session.

SEPTEMBER 2007: Firm Build files for bankruptcy.

MAY 2008: Firm Build's president and an MCOE employee, Patrick Bowman, who funneled $120,000 of school funds to Firm Build, is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors to the Housing Authority.

SEPTEMBER 2008: Five people, including Bowman and Rudy Buendia III, are arrested in connection with the Merced County district attorney's investigation into Firm Build's finances. Charges range from embezzlement, diversion of construction funds, grand theft and criminal conflict of interest. Charges include a number of allegations:

Two managers gave themselves raises without permission from the board;

Bowman had the firm do work on his home;

Without its board's knowledge, the firm gave $96,000 to a nonprofit headed by Bowman;

Buendia paid his father $100,000 for Firm Build stucco work.

JUNE 2009: Bowman, who was suspended with pay from his position at MCOE, is suspended from his position on the Housing Authority because of pending criminal charges.

NOVEMBER 2009: A tip comes in about the removal of asbestos by students at Castle. The D.A.'s office begins a second investigation into Firm Build.

MAY 20, 2010: District attorney files criminal charges against five Firm Build employees: Rudy Buendia III, Rudy Buendia II, Joe Cuellar, Christina Ledezma and Bowman. The charges include 10 felony counts each (5 counts of child endangerment, 5 counts for exposure to harmful materials). Three of the defendants are already facing a range of charges, stemming from a prior D.A. investigation into Firm Build, including diversion of construction funds, grand theft, falsifying corporate reports and embezzlement.

-- Jonah Owen Lamb

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