Three offer guilty pleas to breaking asbestos law

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comMarch 12, 2013 

Three former executives of the defunct nonprofit Firm Build are looking at spending nearly two years in prison after being convicted Monday of violating federal asbestos laws.

Rudy Buendia III, 50; Patrick Bowman, 46; and Joseph Cuellar, 73, each pleaded guilty to one felony count of breaking the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants law regarding the cancer-causing substance.

The agreement with federal prosecutors means Bowman and Cuellar will face 27 months in prison, and Buendia will face 24. They're due to be sentenced by Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill on June 3.

All three will be eligible for release after serving 85 percent of their sentences. The three men remain free, pending sentencing.

The trio were in key oversight positions with Firm Build. They were accused of cutting corners on a renovation project by using at least nine high school vocational students to remove asbestos from the Automotive Training Center at Castle Commerce Center from September 2005 to March 2006.

Federal prosecutors are expected to ask the judge to dismiss the remaining counts against the defendants as part of their plea agreements.

Still, Benjamin Wagner, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said the convictions send a clear message.

"Exposing student workers and subcontractors at a construction site to hazardous asbestos without any precautions, and doing so in order to cut corners and save money, is more than reckless -- it is criminal," Wagner said in a statement.

"The guilty pleas entered today should stand as a warning that those who disregard environmental laws in the pursuit of profit will be prosecuted and will face prison time," the U.S. attorney said.

Although the pleas likely will close the federal case against the three defendants, they face state charges in Merced County Superior Court.

"We have no intention of dismissing our case at this time," said Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II on Monday, when asked about the resolution of the case in federal court.

Morse added that the federal convictions do "confirm some of the essential facts that we have alleged from the inception of this case and this investigation."

Calls were placed to the offices of Kirk McAllister and Ralph Temple, who represent Buendia and Bowman, respectively. Neither could be reached for comment.

Douglas Foster, who represents Cuellar, said his client could have faced significantly more time if the case had gone to trial.

Foster said his client acknowledges he should have been more engaged and aware of what was going on at the 2245 Jetstream Drive building.

"That being said, Joe was never personally aware that kids were removing asbestos. Joe never asked any kids to remove asbestos and at no time directed anyone else to remove asbestos," Foster said.

It remains to be seen whether Bowman, who teaches math at Valley Community School in Los Banos, will be allowed to keep his job, now that he is a convicted felon.

"We're going to confer with legal counsel, review our options and take the appropriate action," said Nathan Quevedo, spokesman for Merced County Office of Education.

According to federal court documents, the students and others removed and disposed of about 1,000 linear feet of pipe insulation and additional tank insulation, which the defendants knew contained asbestos.

The students, according to the documents, removed the cancer-causing substance without proper protective equipment or taking protective measures.

When the incident occurred, Bowman was Firm Build's board president and coordinator of the Workplace Learning Academy, which was created at Valley Community School to teach trade skills for at-risk students.

Buendia was Firm Build's project manager, scouting and determining the nonprofit's projects.

Cuellar was an administrative manager who had the contractor's license Firm Build used to find grant funding, procure contracts and pull permits for projects, according to investigators.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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