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Manager of Merced housing nonprofit still sought in investigation

Firm Build's manager, charged Wednesday with 15 felonies linked to the nonprofit's demise, remains in the wind.

Rudy Buendia III still hasn't surrendered to officers.

Buendia, also a Merced County planning commissioner, became a fugitive after he learned of his outstanding arrest warrants Thursday from his attorney.

Merced County district attorney supervising investigator Wayne Hutton said that officers are searching the area for Buendia and encouraged anyone with information about where he is to contact the office.

Buendia is one of two public officials charged with felonies from Firm Build's collapse in September 2007. For the moment, both will be able to remain on their appointed commissions, as the Board of Supervisors isn't planning any actions.

Meantime, Firm Build's board president Patrick Bowman posted bail late Thursday. He's also a coordinator with the Merced County Office of Education and has been placed on administrative leave while the office conducts an internal investigation, MCOE spokesman Nathan Quevedo said Friday.

As a result, he said he couldn't comment on any of the charges.

Bowman, 41, earns $104,764 in his role as coordinator of the Workplace Learning Academy, which is under the Career and Alternative Education division.

He's accused of seven felonies, including channeling $120,000 from MCOE to Firm Build for projects not connected to the school. He also allegedly violated conflict of interest laws because Firm Build, which contracted with his employer, worked on his personal home.

Joe Cuellar, Firm Build's administrative manager, is charged with 15 felonies, including embezzlement and diversion of construction funds. He bailed himself out of Fresno County Jail.

After 15 months of investigation -- involving both sophisticated forensic accounting and old-fashioned shoe leather -- the District Attorney's Office filed criminal charges against five people tied to Firm Build. The nonprofit had gone bankrupt last year, leaving bills and loans unpaid with the Housing Authority and subcontractors.

Firm Build was founded in 1998 by the Housing Authority and became an independent nonprofit the next year. Its mission was to train at-risk teenagers and Housing Authority clients to become carpenters and construction workers. It was lauded as an innovative way to keep people employed and out of gangs.

Created with taxpayer money, it relied heavily on contracts with the Housing Authority, the Merced County Office of Education and poor residents using city loans to renovate their homes.

While overseeing Firm Build, Buendia, Cuellar and Bowman also gained power on various committees and boards tied to the nonprofit.

Buendia served as a Housing Authority commissioner while he managed Firm Build, by then an independent organization.

Also, three commissioners were on Firm Build's board when the Housing Authority gave the nonprofit a $300,000 loan. Investigators allege that about $100,000 remains unpaid.

Buendia served on the commission from 2005 with his term ending earlier this year.

Bowman was appointed in May to the Housing Authority commission by the Board of Supervisors in a divided vote.

Supervisors Mike Nelson, Deidre Kelsey and John Pedrozo voted to appoint Bowman. Chairwoman Kathleen Crookham and Supervisor Jerry O'Banion dissented.

O'Banion said Friday that he believed it was inappropriate to appoint anyone connected to Firm Build, which the District Attorney's Office had acknowledged was under investigation.

Still, he noted, Bowman and Buendia are innocent until proven guilty and shouldn't be stripped of their power just because charges have been filed. "Any immediate action (from the Board of Supervisors) would not be the right thing to do," he said.

O'Banion has been familiar with Firm Build since its beginning and hopes that a similar program comes along to replace its early work. "I always thought it was a good program to train young adults to be successful in life," he said.

County spokesman Mark Hendrickson said the Board of Supervisors will reserve the right to take any actions and is still assessing what's happened. "We will proceed with the intent of protecting the county," he said.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

If you have any information about the location of Firm Build manager Rudy Buendia III, the Merced County District Attorney's Office asks that you call (209) 385-7383.

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