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Merced judge frees secretary of housing nonprofit

The last person left in custody in the Firm Build case was released on her own recognizance Friday.

Christina Ledezma, a secretary for Merced-based Firm Build, had been denied a reduction of her bail earlier in the week.

"Our position is that all the defendants should either have posted bail or remained in custody," said Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II. Because of that, Morse asked the court to release Ledezma.

"Although bail was properly set, it is unjust for her alone to remain in jail," Morse said.

Four people were arrested last week in connection with a 15-month investigation by the district attorney into the activities of Firm Build, a nonprofit that went bankrupt. The agency had relied heavily on taxpayer funding. Firm Build leaders Patrick Bowman posted bail of $266,000 and Joseph Cuellar posted a bail of $431,000 and were released early last week.

On Wednesday, Buendia, who had been being held on $266,000 bail, was released without bail after Merced County Superior Court Judge Brian McCabe received letters from community members about Buendia's community service. Buendia is facing 17 charges connected with the fall of Firm Build, the nonprofit he ran for about 10 years. He had refused to surrender to authorities for two days, and was arrested last Sunday.

Morse said his office was concerned about the inequity of Ledezma being held in jail while her co-defendants have been released. Morse added that Ledezma was the only one of the four defendants who cooperated to any degree with Morse's investigation

One of the letters in favor of Buendia, which was written on U.S. District Court letterhead urging the Merced County Superior Court to lower Buendia's bail, is now under scrutiny by the Northern District of the court, where the letter writer is employed.

On Friday, the Merced Sun-Star, along with McCabe, Morse, and Buendia's attorney Kirk McCallister, received a faxed letter from Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, which is in San Francisco.

The letter stated that it had come to the attention of Walker that a court employee had written an unauthorized letter on court stationery concerning the release of a defendant facing criminal charges in Merced County Superior Court.

"The court is investigating the matter as a possible breach of the requirement that a court employee's position should not be used, or appear to be used, to advance the private interests of others," the faxed letter stated.

The letter in contention was written by Lili M. Harrell, a courtroom deputy with the U.S. District Court. Harrell wrote that "as a close family friend (of Buendia), it is respectfully requested that the amount of bail be reduced."

Morse said he was very surprised to see that a letter written on U.S. District Court letterhead had been submitted to the Merced court.

"It is generally improper to use court stationery, at least in the state system and I presume in the federal system, for what would be strictly a personal matter," Morse said. He added that he is grateful that the court has tried to rectify the problem.

Twenty letters were given to the judge by McCallister, Buendia's attorney. The letters writers included Merced College President Ben Duran, Supervisor John Pedrozo's sister and sister-in-law, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin's former secretary, and a current Housing Authority commissioner.

McCabe noted that he personally knew seven of the letter writers. He cited Buendia's clean record and 30-year history in the community as reasons that he should be freed.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or