Merced County District Attorney: Firm Build knowingly exposed teens to asbestos

District Attorney Larry Morse address the media about allegations that executives with the nonprofit organization Firm Build knowingly exposed teen workers to asbestos.
District Attorney Larry Morse address the media about allegations that executives with the nonprofit organization Firm Build knowingly exposed teen workers to asbestos. Sun-Star photo by Danielle Gaines

Three former key executives with the defunct nonprofit Firm Build are accused of knowingly exposing high school students to the cancer-causing agent asbestos under the guise of involving the students in work experience and job training programs.

Investigators with the Merced County District Attorney's Office say they've found at least five victims -- although up to 80 teens may have been affected.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said two of the accused -- Rudy Buendia III, 47, of Planada, and Patrick Bowman, 43, of Los Banos -- turned themselves into law enforcement Wednesday and were booked into the Merced County Jail. The third suspect, Joseph Cuellar, 70, of Fresno, turned himself in to the Fresno County Jail on Thursday and will be sent back to Merced County.

Attorneys for the defendants on Thursday questioned Morse's allegations, saying they haven't seen the charges against their clients. One of the attorneys suggested the latest charges were politically motivated and that Thursday's press conference had been called because an earlier investigation had become stalled. Another attorney cited his client's lengthy background in education, insisting he'd never do anything that would hurt young people.

Each of the men will be charged with five felony counts of child endangerment and five counts of knowingly exposing someone to harmful materials, Morse said.

Anna Hazel, a district attorney's investigator, said she interviewed the former students and two Firm Build job coaches. The victims, who were around 16 and 17 years old at the time, removed asbestos from the Automotive Training Center, at 2245 Jetstream Drive within the Castle Commerce Center, under the direction of Firm Build between September 2005 and March 2006.

The students allegedly removed asbestos floor tiles and insulation from pipes inside the old building. Even worse, according to investigators, the students demolished tiles with hammers and other tools, creating an airborne cloud of asbestos fibers they may have inhaled.

Students reported the dust was so thick inside the building, they sometimes had to leave for fresh air, investigators said. The students, who are now adults, were only supplied with cotton masks, hard hats and goggles -- equipment which fell far short of the protective suits needed to properly remove asbestos.

"We are simply at a loss to understand why the appropriate safeguards would not have been taken," Morse said. "These kids never bargained for this kind of a problem."

Morse said the health risks and emotional distress the students suffered were immeasurable -- and could last a lifetime. "The sad fact of the matter is that some of these students, who were kids when they participated in these programs, may spend the rest of their lives wondering whether they will develop cancer or lung damage," Morse said. "It is frankly appalling that anyone would play Russian roulette with the health of teenagers simply to cut corners on a construction project. But that's what appears to have happened."

None of the young workers interviewed by the District Attorney's Office has health problems from the asbestos so far, Morse said.

The district attorney hoped Thursday's press conference would encourage others to come forward. Morse said some of the victims have moved out of the area, while others may be hesitant to speak with investigators. "We will want to interview them, obviously, and we will make appropriate referrals," Morse said.

Both state and federal laws explicitly limit asbestos removal to personnel who have been adequately trained and properly equipped with special safety gear and clothing, Morse said.

News of the students' possible exposure to asbestos is the latest in a deluge of criminal charges already facing the former Firm Build executives. In September 2008, five people were arrested in a district attorney's financial investigation of the organization. Cuellar, Buendia and Bowman were among those arrested. In that case, felony charges range from embezzlement and diversion of construction funds to grand theft.

The asbestos investigation was launched in November 2009 and lasted seven months after the District Attorney's Office received a witness tip. At the time of the alleged crime, all of the accused were in key oversight positions with Firm Build on the Automotive Training Center project. Bowman was Firm Build's board president and coordinator of the Workplace Learning Academy, created at Valley Community School to teach trade skills for at-risk students.

Buendia, at the time, was Firm Build's project manager, scouting and determining the nonprofit's projects. Cuellar was an administrative manager who had the contractor's license Firm Build used to find grant funding, procure contracts and pull permits for projects, according to investigators.

Bowman's attorney, Ralph Temple, said he hasn't seen the charges against his client and believes he's innocent of any wrongdoing. Temple said his client has more than 20 years of experience as an educator and would never expose students to asbestos. "He's the last guy in the world who would ever hurt someone intentionally," Temple said.

Kirk McAllister, Buendia's lawyer, said he thought the urgency of the issue had much more to do with the district attorney's press conference "than it did with justice." McAllister also mentioned the first case against Buendia was filed a year-and-a-half ago by the District Attorney's Office, but has yet to get off the ground. "I assume that the new charges, which relate to the same old case, are simply more payback. At the first opportunity, we are going to ask the judge to release him on his promise to appear and not have to put up bail," McAllister said.

Rennise Ferrario, executive director of the Housing Authority of Merced County, couldn't be reached for immediate comment on the latest developments in the Firm Build case. A Housing Authority employee said Ferrario was the only person at the agency who could comment.

The alleged web of deception

The Merced County Office of Education signed a lease for the 2245 Jetstream Drive building in June 2005, with the intent to use vocational students to remodel the facility into an automotive teaching center. The lease was signed by Merced County Superintendent of Schools Lee Andersen and the then Board of Supervisors Chairman Jerry O'Banion.

The documents disclosed asbestos, lead-based paint, black mold and groundwater contamination at the site.

The asbestos was referenced in the lease and also in a sublease agreement.

"As Merced County believes that it's vitally important to protect the health and well-being of people conducting business at Castle, it appropriately disclosed the on-site asbestos at the time this lease was being executed by the parties," said Mark Hendrickson, the county's director of commerce, aviation and economic development. "This lease well spelled out the environmental conditions of the facility through several exhibits, all of which were provided."

The lease was negotiated by Bowman and his assistant Jack Weaver, who is now deceased, over the course of 18 months, Hazel said.

"I doubt very seriously that Merced County Office of Education would have approved this project, had their leadership, Andersen or others, been made aware that the buildings contained asbestos," Morse said Thursday. "I doubt very seriously that anyone in a position of authority beyond Mr. Bowman would have placed these kids in that kind of work."

In the following months, Firm Build's leaders allegedly lied to its board, the county and state regulators about the nature of the renovation. The nonprofit's board was told there would be a complete overhaul, which would have required professional asbestos removal. The county planning department and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, through documents, were told asbestos in the building wouldn't be disturbed.

On an asbestos notification form filed to the air district, Cuellar wrote "not to be disturbed" next to a box acknowledging asbestos in the project area.

Firm Build's application for a county building permit listed minimal work, such as painting walls and installing a garage door.

Despite the dangerous work, DA investigators say teens soon started removing the carcinogenic material from the building. Some of the students were receiving school credits, while others were paid through the Regional Occupation Program (ROP).

Lack of oversight

For all of Firm Build's failings, local agencies lacked oversight in the fiasco.

More than 30 local, state and federal agencies became involved in the district attorney's investigations of Firm Build, Morse said.

Morse said his office learned that a known parolee and convicted felon was working for Firm Build as a job coach with the students.

The Merced County Office of Education began teaching students inside the Castle building well before the building had been cleared for occupancy by Merced County.

Firm Build staffers allegedly lied on permit applications to county and other agencies, which would have been discovered with follow-up inspections.

Bovee Environmental Management, a consulting firm, wasn't informed by Firm Build that the building would be used as a school site for children, investigators said, which would have changed the environmental review process.

Nathan Quevedo, spokesman for the Merced County Office of Education, responded to the bulk of the allegations against the organization Thursday afternoon.

About Bowman, Quevedo said the former MCOE administrator was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday. Bowman's annual salary is $77,976.

Before turning himself into the police Wednesday, Bowman worked as a math teacher at Valley Community School in Los Banos.

He was reassigned from his supervisory role in late 2008 and assigned to something else in the county office. In September 2009, he took the Los Banos teaching position.

As coordinator of the Workplace Learning Academy, Bowman earned $104,764.

Quevedo said Bowman wasn't dismissed earlier because the charges against him were just that. "At this point, these are just allegations," he said.

The county Office of Education is conducting its own investigation into what happened at the Castle site. Until there are results, Quevedo said he couldn't comment further.

"MCOE placed a great deal of trust in Bowman as the program had operated successfully," he said. "Once MCOE discovered that certain information was concealed, MCOE promptly cut off ties with Firm Build."

MCOE is in additional hot water over the fact that Mariano Rezendez, 51, a convicted felon, was working as a job coach with students on the construction of the automotive training center, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Resendez's convictions happened as recently as 2002, and include armed robbery and burglary, investigators said.

Resendez was on parole at the time he was working as a job coach for Firm Build.

Since then, Resendez has been in and out of jail on drug charges, which culminated in a recent narcotics arrest, authorities say. He was released from Merced County Jail last week.

MCOE claimed it wasn't aware of Resendez's police record, and Quevedo said he hadn't heard of the charge until recently.

"This is going to be one of the first things we're going to investigate," he said. "We're going to investigate how he started working there and who he was working for."

MCOE is also in the process of working with its insurance carrier to address the accusations and the potential for a civil lawsuit.

"I hope this doesn't overshadow the positive impact that other Regional Occupation Programs provide because the focus is on vocational education, which is an asset to the community," Quevedo added.

Firm Build: How it all started

Firm Build launched in 1998 as a program of the Merced County Housing Authority to modernize its stock of public housing while giving residents marketable skills. The nonprofit became independent in 1999.

The Housing Authority won a $500,000 federal grant in 2001 to train at-risk youth while renovating its housing. The Housing Authority gave the money to Firm Build.

By 2007, however, things began falling apart for Firm Build, as more than a dozen companies and subcontractors that did business with the nonprofit complained about more than $500,000 in unpaid bills.

The Merced County District Attorney's Office launched a criminal investigation.

In the 2008 embezzlement case against Firm Build, Christina Ledezma, the nonprofit's former secretary, and Rudy Buendia II, the father of Buendia III, were also arrested.

Ledezma pleaded no contest last month to one count of misdemeanor grand theft embezzlement, in exchange for testimony, according to Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall, the prosecutor in the case. She will be sentenced after the embezzlement case against Buendia III, Bowman and Cuellar goes to trial. A trial date hasn't been set, Wall said.

Buendia II was recently convicted of doing stucco work on behalf of Firm Build without a license. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of contracting without a license and was sentenced to probation. Wall said Buendia II also lost any ability to contract in the future.

Buendia III, Bowman and Cuellar are being held in lieu of $500,000 bail each.

Jonah Owen Lamb, Jamie Oppenheim, Carol Reiter and Mike Tharp contributed to this story.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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