Firm Build defendants plead no contest in asbestos case

Plea deal amounts to 2 years in prison

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comMay 20, 2013 

The state criminal case against three former executives of the defunct nonprofit Firm Build culminated Friday with the trio pleading no contest to felony charges of exposing high school students to cancer-causing asbestos.

The plea agreement was reached with Rudy Buendia III, 50, Patrick Bowman, 46, and Joseph Cuellar, 73.

They pleaded no contest to felony treating, handling or disposing of asbestos in a manner which caused an unreasonable risk of serious injury to the nine students, with knowing or reckless disregard for the risk.

All three also pleaded no contest to illegally diverting construction funds. In addition, Cuellar pleaded no contest to felony failure to pay payroll taxes, while Buendia entered a plea of no contest to felony worker's compensation violations.

They're scheduled to be sentenced by Merced County Superior Court Judge John Kirihara on July 12 to three years and eight months in prison. With sentencing credits, they're eligible to serve about half of that time in prison.

In March, the defendants were convicted on federal charges of violating asbestos laws. They're due to be sentenced on the federal charges by Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill on June 3. They each face between 24 and 27 months in federal prison.

Under the terms of Friday's plea agreement with Merced County prosecutors, the trio will serve the state and federal sentences at the same time, which means they will spend about two years in prison, authorities said.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said he was pleased with Friday's outcome. Morse praised his staff's work on the Firm Build investigation, launched by his office six years ago.

The case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall and Deputy Attorney General Brett Morris.

"We feel very vindicated by the nature of these pleas," Morse said. "We believe it validates everything we've said and done for the last several years."

Morse said his thoughts are with the students who were exposed to asbestos in the case, saying that he hopes they will be adequately cared for, should they develop health problems because of the exposure.

"Because these were 'at-risk' kids, they were not deemed as worthy of the protection that should have been afforded them in a school program," Morse said.

Defense attorneys Kirk McAllister, Ralph Temple and Douglas Foster, who represent Buendia, Bowman and Cuellar respectively, all declined comment after Friday's hearing.

The defendants 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.

According to court documents, the students and others removed and disposed of about 1,000 linear feet of pipe insulation and additional tank insulation at the 2245 Jetstream Drive building in Atwater — which the defendants knew contained asbestos.

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

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

Buendia was Firm Build's project manager, and scouted and determined the nonprofit's projects.

Cuellar was an administrative manager who had the contractor license that 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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