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Merced County judge lets subject of housing nonprofit investigation out of jail

Citing a clean record and a 30-year history in the area, a Merced County Superior Court judge ordered Firm Build's manager released from jail Wednesday.

The dozen-and-a-half supporters of Rudy Buendia III sighed as Judge Brian McCabe decided that he wasn't a flight risk and could be set free.

"There's a pristine record," McCabe said. "He has a long ties to the community."

Buendia, silent and expressionless, watched the hearing through a television linkup with the John Latorraca Correctional Center, where he was being held in lieu of $266,000 bail.

Buendia, 45, stands accused of 15 felonies stemming from the demise of the nonprofit he ran, Firm Build, which filed bankruptcy last year.

The Planada resident was released from jail in the early evening.

"He's a well-respected man in the community," his Modesto-based attorney Kirk McAllister said after the hearing. "All these people know the charges are bogus."

McAllister handed the judge a stack of 20 letters from members of the community supporting Buendia's release. McCabe noted that he knew seven of the letter-writers.

Outside the courtroom, his friends and family hugged.

"Let's go get him!" one said.

"Praise the lord," another shouted.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin arrested Buendia in Merced on Sunday afternoon after district attorney investigators had been searching for him for two days.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II filed a 27-count criminal complaint against Firm Build's two managers, bookkeeper, board president and Buendia's father, who did contract work for the nonprofit.

The case took 15 months to investigate and included a forensic accounting specialist from a neighboring county.

Besides the criminal charges, the case has political implications, as Buendia serves as a Merced County Planning Commissioner and Patrick Bowman, the nonprofit's board president and also facing charges, serves as a Housing Authority commissioner -- both spots are appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

Bowman, also a coordinator with the Merced County Office of Education, is on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Firm Build formed a decade ago as a way to teach Merced's poor residents and at-risk youth to become carpenters.

It began as a Housing Authority program and became an independent nonprofit the following year. It hit money troubles in 2004.

Investigators believe Buendia gave himself a raise without the Firm Build Board of Direction's approval, misused construction funds by spending the money on other projects and falsifying accounting records.

McAllister said his first priority was getting Buendia out of jail, now he'll turn his attention to the reams of reports to read. "It's our job is to fight these charges," McAllister said, "and vindicate him in court."

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

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