Merced DA: Nonprofit exposed teens to asbestos

MERCED — Three former 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 suspects — 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 yesterday's news conference had been called because an earlier investigation had stalled. Another attorney cited his client's lengthy background in education, insisting he'd never do anything that would hurt young people.

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.

By 2007, 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.

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

The victims, who were about 16 and 17 years old at the time, reportedly 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. The students reportedly 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 that fell far short of the protective suits needed to properly remove asbestos.

"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.

None of the alleged victims interviewed by the district attorney's office have health problems from the asbestos so far, Morse said.

Other charges in past

News of the students' possible exposure to asbestos is the latest in a deluge of criminal charges already facing the former Firm Build execs. 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 after the district attorney's office received a witness tip. At the time of the alleged crime, all of the suspects 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 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.

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.

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