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Educational program executives sentenced for exposing high school students to asbestos

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Apr 7, 2014

FRESNO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - Two former executives from a now-defunct nonprofit organization were sentenced to prison on Monday for exposing as many as 80 Merced County high school students to asbestos in an attempt to cut corners in asbestos removal.

Patrick Bowman and Rudy Buendia III pleaded no contest to federal charges of violating federal asbestos laws in May.

Bowman, who was also a teacher with the Valley Community School in Los Banos, Calif., served as Firm Build's board president and coordinator of the Workplace Learning Academy, and Buendia was the nonprofit's construction project site supervisor.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill of the Eastern District of California sentenced Bowman to 27 months and Buendia to 24 months in federal prison.

Joseph Cuellar, Firm Build's former administrative manager, was also charged but filed a motion to withdraw his no contest plea, which was later denied. As a result, O'Neill gave Cuellar's counsel until May 15 to file additional motions before moving forward with sentencing.

Firm Build had a contract with the Merced County Office of Education to provide job training and work experience programs to local "at-risk" high school students from the Workplace Learning Academy. The program was intended to teach trade skills to students as young as 14 years old.

The students would work for part of the school day and receive school credit for their work. Some were paid minimum wage for the work they performed, Bowman's plea agreement states.

Instead, the trio knowingly used to students to remove asbestos during a demolition and renovation project at Castle Commerce Center's Automotive Training Center, located at 2245 Jetstream Drive in Atwater, from September 2005 to March 2006.

The "defendants falsely represented that Firm Build, Inc. intended to perform a renovation construction project ... with no disturbance or removal of any asbestos containing materials, including flooring, insulation and piping, when, in truth and fact, defendants knew that the renovation and construction project would involve the removal of asbestos containing materials," the indictment states.

During the construction work, students and employees removed and abated between 700 and 1,000 linear feet of asbestos-containing pipe insulation.

The students were required to remove asbestos-containing materials without first learning proper removal methods and were not provided appropriate respiratory protection.

Job Coach Joe Gudino testified that they would cut through the insulation and pipes and let them drop to the ground, creating dust. He added that the insulation was "crumbly."

Students also cut out the insulation, dragged it to dumpsters and removed the remaining dust with dustpans. They also occasionally used sledgehammers to remove pipe insulation and then used their hands or shovels to dispose of the material in dumpsters.

Job Coach Angelo Gonzalez testified that employees and students put the asbestos-containing insulation in garbage bags and wheelbarrows and disposed of it in dumpsters, which were picked up by the Central Valley Disposal to take to regular landfills.

According to court records, the men knew the building had asbestos in it when they negotiated the lease.

Cuellar later told several contractors during a job walk that they had no intentions of disturbing the asbestos-containing materials, but said Firm Build would handle necessary asbestos abatement.

In the fall of 2005, Firm Build Job Coach Mariano Resendez testified that Cuellar walked him through the building and pointed out the asbestos. When Resendez expressed concern about working with asbestos, Cuellar told him to "just get it done," "we're losing money," "we're already past the date of completion."

Resendez also said that when discussing the use of respirators for asbestos removal, Buendia told him, "We're not going to worry about that right now ... we're friends, don't make a big deal of it."

Then in 2006, all three executives agreed that there was no asbestos in the building and that it had been removed before the contractors began working at the site.

Bowman and Buendia also pleaded no contest in May to state felony charges of treating, handling or disposing of asbestos in a way that risked serious injury to students, with reckless disregard for their safety.

Their sentences will cover convictions in both state and federal court.

Bowman and Buendia will both self-surrender at 2 p.m. on June 27 to begin their sentences.

Restitution has not yet been determined.

O'Neill also waived the trio's appeal rights.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Heather Isringhausen Gvillo at asbestos@legalnewsline.com

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