Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Merced County grand jury indicts 3 leaders of Firm Build

Authorities say students were exposed to asbestos during work at Castle.

Three former Firm Build executives accused of knowingly exposing high school students to cancer-causing asbestos have been indicted on several charges of child endangerment by a Merced County grand jury.

The grand jury indictments in the case against the three men -- Rudy Buendia III, 47, Patrick Bowman, 44, and Joseph Cuellar, 71 -- came Friday afternoon after three weeks of testimony by more than 80 witnesses.

At the time the trio was arrested on the charges in May, five former students allegedly exposed to asbestos between August 2005 and March 2006 had come forward. Since then, that number has increased to nine.

The grand jury also indicted the trio on a host of additional charges, including grand theft, falsifying corporate reports, perjury and forgery, stemming from the district attorney's 2008 financial investigation of Firm Build.

All three men have steadfastly denied the allegations and have pleaded not guilty.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said his office decided to take the case to a grand jury, rather than a preliminary hearing because of the case's complexity and the number of counts involved.

Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall, prosecutor in the case, said the grand jury added 15 additional counts to the indictment besides the 52 counts sought by prosecutors. "There was overwhelming evidence of guilt. That's why the grand jury added on counts over and above what we recommended," Wall said.

In a preliminary hearing, a judge decides whether enough evidence exists to allow a case to proceed to trial. In California, prosecutors have the option of presenting their evidence to a criminal grand jury, rather than a judge. The county's grand jury is a panel composed of 19 citizens.

The grand jury indicted Buendia and Cuellar on 62 counts, while Bowman was indicted on 52 counts.

The nine victims, who were around 16 and 17 years old at the time, allegedly removed asbestos, without the required safety equipment, on numerous occasions from the Automotive Training Center, at the Castle Commerce Center, under the direction of Firm Build.

The defendants allegedly used the students to remove the asbestos from the building under the guise of involving at-risk students in work experience and job training programs. The students allegedly removed asbestos floor tiles and insulation from pipes inside the old military building, creating an airborne cloud of asbestos fibers they may have inhaled.

At the time, 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 the nonprofit's project manager, while Cuellar was an administrative manager, according to D.A. investigators.

Morse said the investigation points to "an appalling lack of oversight" and "sweeping negligence" at the highest levels of the Merced County Office of Education, in terms of its relationship with Firm Build and the office's responsibility to students under their care.

Asked to elaborate about the lack of oversight and those involved other than the defendants, Morse said he couldn't comment further because of the ongoing investigation. "There is ample information that the safeguards that should have been in place, or were in place to protect these students, were either ignored or marginalized."

Nathan Quevedo, spokesman for the Merced County Office of Education, said his office has "cooperated with all requests from the district attorney's office."

Quevedo also said an outside investigator, Sacramento attorney Donna Matties, conducted her own six-week investigation into the asbestos allegations. "MCOE hired an outside investigator to ensure the integrity of the investigation and remove any perception of a conflict of interest or bias," Quevedo said.

Quevedo said her report is confidential because it's a personnel matter, but added, "We cannot substantiate the allegations that students who worked at the (Automotive Training Center) were exposed to asbestos."

Bowman is employed as a math and algebra instructor at Valley Community School in Los Banos, Quevedo said.

Defense attorneys in the case say their clients maintain their innocence. Ralph Temple, Bowman's attorney, said his client was a volunteer who was asked to serve on Firm Build's board. "He never was paid a dime," Temple said. "He never got any money out of Firm Build whatsoever."

Temple said his client, as a schoolteacher, would never "harm anybody" or expose students to asbestos. Temple added his client was only an intermediary between MCOE and Firm Build, adding that he's an educator, not an expert in contracting or construction. "If there was a problem (with asbestos), the people who were qualified to take care of it were supposed to do that," Temple said.

Kirk McAllister, Buendia's attorney, said he believes Morse's office chose to pursue the case in front of a grand jury because of the procedural advantages allowed by the prosecution. Unlike a preliminary hearing, defense attorneys cannot cross-examine witnesses or ask questions.

Grand jury hearings, unlike preliminary hearings, are also closed to defense attorneys and the public. "This is a regurgitation of the charges that Mr. Buendia has been fighting for the last two years," McAllister said. "If Mr. Wall's evidence was so overwhelming, why will he only show it behind the closed doors of a grand jury, where everything looks overwhelming in the eyes of a prosecutor, instead of testing it in court as we've been trying to do at a preliminary hearing?"

McAllister said the defense has tried getting the case more than once to a preliminary hearing. "Each time we did, there was some roadblock thrown in front of us by the district attorney, the last being them stepping in front of that open courtroom process by hiding behind the closed doors of the grand jury."

Cuellar's attorney, Douglas Foster, did not return calls placed to his office.

Firm Build was 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 contracted with MCOE to provide instructors to teach at-risk students in the Regional Occupational Program (ROP).

MCOE 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 documents revealed that asbestos, lead-based paint, black mold and groundwater contamination were present at the site.

The lease was negotiated by Bowman and his assistant Jack Weaver, who is now deceased, over the course of 18 months, according to D.A.'s office investigators. Firm Build's leaders allegedly lied to its board, the county and state regulators about the nature of the renovation. Firm Build's application for a county building permit listed minimal work, such as painting walls and installing a garage door. Still, D.A. investigators say teens soon started removing the carcinogenic material from the building.

In addition to the state charges, all three defendants face federal charges for allegedly submitting false statements to the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, several violations of the Clean Air Act and knowingly endangering others by releasing asbestos into the air.

Firm Build went bankrupt in mid-2007, leaving bills and loans unpaid with the Housing Authority and subcontractors. That prompted a District Attorney's Office financial investigation that lasted 15 months and culminated in the defendants' arrests on several charges, including embezzlement, diversion of construction funds and grand theft.

In November 2009, the District Attorney's Office launched its investigation into the asbestos allegations after receiving a witness tip from an electrician.

If convicted on the federal charges, the trio faces 15 years in prison. If convicted on the state charges, they face around 30 years in prison.

All three defendants remain free on bail. Their next hearing in Merced County Superior Court is scheduled for Dec. 10.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Victorville corruption probes continue

Michael J. Sorba, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/14/2010 04:52:38 PM PST
Updated: 11/14/2010 05:02:38 PM PST

VICTORVILLE - Federal and local investigators continue to request stacks of documents from the city as part of ongoing probes into bond sales and financial records.

Requests for information have become so intensive that three full-time workers are dedicated to processing them, said Councilman Ryan McEachron.

"It's more or less an ongoing investigation and no outcomes at this point have been shared with city staff," McEachron said. "I'm not sure how much longer this will go or how long it will take them to come out with any kind of a report."

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission launched its investigation in August, directing city employees to stop deleting e-mails or throw away paper records, including document drafts and Post-it notes, said city spokeswoman Yvonne Hester.

The SEC has declined to comment on the matter. McEachron says the agency is focused on bond sales that took place between 2005 and 2008.

The city has about $464 million in outstanding bond debt, with all but $83 million of it falling under the Redevelopment Agency, said Hester.

The $83 million city bond funded the failed Foxborough power plant. The agency's debt was issued to pay for infrastructure improvements to roads, sewers and hangars at Southern California Logistic Airport, Hester said.

In April 2009, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury began investigating handshake agreements allegedly made between former City Manager Jon B. Roberts and developers without council approval, McEachron said. Roberts is now city manager in Steamboat Springs, Co.

When last year's Grand Jury disbanded in June, a special Grand Jury panel was formed to pick up where the previous one left off.

For legal reasons, McEachron said he couldn't comment on specific deals, but generally speaking, Roberts allowed certain developers to forgo paying the cost of infrastructure improvements they're usually required to pay for, such as traffic signals or street improvements.

Instead the city footed the bill, he said.

"I think that, without a doubt, there is a focus of the Grand Jury into some of the things that were done while (Roberts) was in charge," McEachron said. "Whether or not it's him specifically or someone else, it's yet to be seen. We don't know if they're focusing on any one person or people."

When contacted by phone Friday, Roberts only said, "I'm not familiar with what (McEachron's) referring to."

McEachron said he found it odd Roberts shifted payroll responsibilities from its typical place in the Finance Department to the Information Technology Department. The councilman also said he disagreed with a decision made by the council prior to his 2008 election that increased the amount of money Roberts could spend - $25,000 to $125,000 - without council approval.

In response to increasing allegations of corruption from residents, McEachron in December asked the council to commission a forensic audit of the city's finances to root out possible malfeasance.

The council voted 4-1, with Councilman Mike Rothschild dissenting, to go forward with it. The council lobbied the county's Board of Supervisors to pay $195,000 to hire an outside auditor. The audit has been under way for over six months with the Grand Jury providing oversight, schild said.

Although it's possible some bad management decisions were made under Roberts, said Rothschild, he doesn't believe any illegal activity occurred.

Aside from county taxpayer money used to pay for the audit, complying with the volume of information requests related to it and the SEC investigation have racked up $120,000 in internal costs to the city, Rothschild said.

"It's a complete waste of taxpayer money. We can't afford to pay $120,000, but we still have to pay it," Rothschild said. "It's an enormous pressure and I haven't got a clue as to what they're looking for. There's nothing there to the best of my knowledge. If there was, I'd be one of the first to jump in and point fingers."

McEachron said he hopes the audit will provide the city with answers.

"If someone did do something wrong, then they should be held accountable for it," McEachron said.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

San Diego Superior court seeking 19 new members for grand jury

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The San Diego Superior Court is looking for 19 area residents to serve on the 2011-12 grand jury, it was announced Friday.

The panel investigates citizen complaints and serves as a watchdog over public agencies.

Prospective grand jurors must be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen who has lived in San Diego County for at least one year and be proficient in the English language. Candidates will go through a criminal background check.

Grand jurors will work six hours per day, four days per week, from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012. They will receive a small daily stipend, and the county will pay for mileage and parking.

Applications are available in the business office of all courthouses, by telephone at (619) 450-7272, or download the form at or

The applications are due by Jan. 14.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Grand jury subpoenas Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit

Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit will testify before the Riverside County grand jury on Friday, but has not been told what they're investigating. Benoit will be questioned at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Riverside.

The subpoena, which arrived last week, did not provide insight into the grand jury's probe.

But Benoit's chief of staff, Michelle DeArmond, said the supervisor “has no reason to believe he's a target for anything.”

“There's nothing that gives him any concern,” DeArmond said Wednesday. “He's simply responding to the subpoena.”

Riverside County district attorney spokesman Michael Jeandron said it was office policy not to confirm or deny such questioning because of the “confidential nature of any ongoing grand jury.”

It was not clear Wednesday evening whether Benoit was appearing before a civil or a criminal grand jury.

Benoit represents the Riverside County's fourth district, which includes most of the Coachella Valley.