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Merced Sheriff arrests manager of housing nonprofit

After two days on the run, Firm Build's manager surrendered Sunday to Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin.

Rudy Buendia III, 45, was arrested Sunday afternoon at Childs Avenue and Highway 99 by Pazin and Sgt. Keith McClain, ending the Merced County district attorney's search for him.

Sheriff's spokesman Tom MacKenzie said Buendia or his family called the department to say he was ready to turn himself in. It's not unusual for Pazin to respond to calls and make arrests, MacKenzie said.

Pazin was unavailable for comment because he was in a daylong budget hearing.

Buendia, a Merced County Planning commissioner and former Housing Authority commissioner, is charged with 15 felonies tied to Firm Build's demise last year. Charges include embezzlement, grand theft and diversion of construction funds.

He's being held at the John Latorraca Correctional Center in lieu of $266,000 in bail. Buendia's attorney Kirk McAllister, of Modesto, scheduled a bail review hearing for Wednesday.

McAllister declined to comment on the charges, saying only that he's focused on reducing the bail.

The DA's Office wrapped up a 15-month investigation Thursday when it filed charges against Buendia, Firm Build's administrative manager Joe Cuellar, bookkeeper Christina Ledezma, board President Patrick Bowman and Buendia's father, who allegedly contracted to do stucco work for the nonprofit without a license.

Firm Build's mission was to give people who live in public housing the skills to become carpenters and construction workers to better their lives.

It started in 1998 as a Housing Authority program and became an independent nonprofit the next year. Its managers looked to expand its business by contracting with Merced County Office of Education and residents who were renovating their homes with help of city loans.

Firm Build relied on the free help from Housing Authority clients and Valley High School students for most of its jobs. It hired subcontractors for some of the work its trainees couldn't do.

The nonprofit began having money troubles a few years ago and went bankrupt in 2007, with complaints from residents prompting a criminal probe.

Investigators found that many subcontractors were left unpaid and that Firm Build owed more than $700,000 in outstanding bills.

DA investigators believe that Firm Build's managers left projects incomplete and instead used the money to fund other construction work.

One charge against Buendia, Cuellar and Bowman is for Firm Build failing to finish the renovation of a MCOE automotive training center. The complaint alleges that Firm Build diverted more than $45,000 from the Castle Commerce Center project to a different one.

Bowman, a Housing Authority commissioner, is also charged with diverting public funds because MCOE allegedly gave $120,000 to Firm Build for projects not connected with the office of education.

Bowman, MCOE's Workplace Learning Academy coordinator, has been placed on administrative leave because of an internal investigation, county officials said.

Reporter Scott Jason

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

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