Crime

Firm Build trio indicted on federal charges in asbestos case

Three former Firm Build executives were indicted Wednesday on federal charges for allegedly violating hazardous waste laws and knowingly exposing high school students to asbestos -- adding to an already long list of state charges.

The defendants, Rudy Buendia III, 47, Patrick Bowman, 44, and Joseph Cuellar, 71, allegedly cut corners by using teenagers to remove asbestos from the Automotive Training Center at Castle Commerce Center.The federal grand jury has charged the trio for submitting false statements to the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, according to Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, Eastern District of California.

In addition, all three are charged with nine violations of the Clean Air Act and knowingly endangering others by releasing asbestos into the air. If convicted on the federal charges, the trio faces 15 years in prison.The asbestos investigation was launched by the Merced County District Attorney’s Office in November 2009 and lasted seven months after the district attorney received a witness tip. The defendants were arraigned on state charges in Merced County Superior Court in May. All three men have pleaded not guilty and deny the charges.

The investigation grew to include the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Criminal Enforcement.

District Attorney Larry Morse II said the number of federal indictments “reinforces the gravity of what took place” with Firm Build.

"We believe that because some of these ROP students came from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were not treated with the care they deserved," Morse said. "Instead of having an opportunity to learn some skills they were treated as disposable goods, because (the suspects) had a failing business and were trying to cut corners."

Kirk McAllister, Buendia’s attorney, said his client maintains his innocence, and will fight the allegations to “bring the truth” to court.

"He's denied the charges all the way through," McAllister said.

When asked about how his client is handling news of the federal indictment, McAllister said Buendia "has a very even tempered attitude generally and he’s bearing up very well under the stress of having been charged for two years."

Calls were placed to Douglas Clayton Foster and Ralph Temple, the attorneys for Cuellar and Bowman. They couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

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.

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.

Prosecutors with the district attorney's office said five victims have stepped forward in the case -- although up to 80 students may have been affected.

The defendants also face several state charges in another case tied to Firm Build. In September 2008, they were arrested in a district attorney’s financial investigation of Firm Build.

In that case, felony charges range from embezzlement and diversion of construction funds to grand theft.

Those charges are still pending.

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

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