In the fall of 2008 as the economy was falling about our ears, Merced County lashed out at what we then called "low hanging fruit" because the group indicted for purloining hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal funds were such obvious crooks, They were fronted by Rudy Buendia of Planada, who had been promoted up the ladder of responsibility and community visibility until he had landed on the county Planning Commission as a tardy, uncomprehending, silent vote for the developers when he turned up at all. The first article, from Badlands files in September 2008, deals with the indictments on financial charges. The article below, from the May 21, 2012 Merrced Sun-Star, deals with the later charges of endangerment of youth who helped tear down asbestos-laden rooms belonging to the Merced County Office of Education, wihtout proper safety gear. The MCOE superintendent at the time, Lee Anderson, testified after receiving a grant of immunity from prosecution because he knew about but did not report the incident.
Unlike the hapless Buendia, thrown early to the wolves, Lee Anderson is a prominent Mercedian, a pillar of the public employees that compose the middle class of this county seat. Tall, slim, athletic, white, and a top public education administrator with a big salary ... it hardly gets any more prestigious in a county made up of rich landowners (their propagandists call them "stewards of the land"), the middle class of public employees with a scattering of other professionals, all surrounded by the poor getting poorer. Anderson's attorney, Katherine Hart, is almost certainly the county's beloved outside attorney Katy Hart, who represented the County on the infamous Riverside Motor Park project along with then assistant County Counsel, Walter Wall, now the assistant DA taking testimony from the immunized Anderson. It raises the question: Why was it Anderson that got immunity and not any of the other co-conspirators, not quite such prominent social luminaries as is Lee, whose vaguely simian grin is a fixture at every public function? What did Wall or his bosses owe Hart? Hart already has a documented trail of violations of conflict-of-interest laws, cited by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
Neither of the articles here will take you to the stinking depths of corruption in Merced County but they may help point the way.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Low hanging fruit, Part II...Badlands Journal Editorial Board
The articles below from the Merced Sun-Star tell a story about felony indictments brought against five people associated with Firm Build, a program started in 1998 to train "troubled teens" in construction trades. Merced County Planning Commissioner Rudy Buendia was or is still executive director of Firm Build, which went bankrupt months ago.
Buendia, charged originally with 15 felonies (later 17), according to the newspaper fled arrest and was a "fugitive" for two days before turning himself in with Kirk McAllister, Modesto criminal defense attorney, at his side.
Two of the five charged were arrested. It is unclear from reports if two others were arrested or turned themselves in. Two have posted bail and been released.
Buendia, the only reported fugitive, was released without paying bail on September 18 by Superior Court Judge McCabe. The judge's reasons included Buendia's clean record and that he personally knew seven of the 20 prominent people who wrote letters on Buendia's behalf. The board of supervisors is reported to have no plans of removing either Planning Commissioner Buendia or Patrick Bowman, on the board of the "troubled" Merced County Housing Authority and an official of the Merced County Office of Education, from the positions the board appointed them to.
District Attorney Larry Morse II returned to McCabe's court the next day and asked for the release of Firm Build's bookkeeper because, he said, she was the only one of the five who had cooperated in the investigation and that it was unfair for her to remain in jail after the judge had released Buendia. No prominent citizens are reported to have written any letters on the bookkeeper's behalf although it is fair to speculate that the bookkeeper knows more then Buendia, a man, who in public appears to know as little as possible. The judge granted her release on her own recognizance.
The motives for these prominent citizens to get involved with a serious criminal case involving the disappearance of some $700,000, reportedly of all or in large part public funds, is a matter of pure speculation. Perhaps Buendia's ghostly presence on the planning commission and complacent voting habits have something to do with it. Political and economic connections to Firm Build, the Housing Authority, Planada (Buendia's home) are so incestuous, it's hard to imagine that significant parts or all of the Merced power structure (with the exception of the DA's office) are not represented somehwere in the 20 letters on Buendia's behalf.
To take just one example of the sort of speculation that should not have occurred is that Merced College (whose president, Ben Duran, wrote a letter on Buendia's behalf) is a district within the Merced County Office of Education, where alleged felon Bowman is currently on administrative leave. The judge's father, a man with a deep interest in agricultural and vocational education, is a trustee of the college. Whatever may or may not have transpired between the trustee and the president, it doesn't look good. Speculation about direct financial involvement between the college and Firm Build, possible relationships between Firm Build, other members of the board of trustees and of the board of directors of the Merced College Foundation, creates a geometric progression of possible connections. Another example of the geometric progression of connections is Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, the very model of the modern agricultural organization person and sister-in-law of Supervisor John Pedrozo, who represents Planada. She sits or has sat on boards, commissions and committees (at times with Buendia) too numerous to list. At present, she is the executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau and president of California Women for Agriculture. She rarely makes a move without Supervisor Diedre Kelsey's approval and Kelsey rarely makes a move without County CEO Dee Tatum's nod. Despite the psychotic Grand Jury report on the deal Tatum made with developers and the Housing Authority for his land in Planada, the smoke's still rising from that backyard trash incinerator. The syntax and arithmetic on that Grand Jury report should remind the public of what happens when the official mind of Merced blinks down the barrel of political pressure in the cause of covering up alleged official malfeasance.
We are accustomed to overt political manipulations in the Merced County Superior Court when the case involves the California Environmental Quality Act, but this case involves grand theft and embezzlement of large amounts of public funds. We assumed criminal law was held to a higher standard of judicial correctness than mere environmental issues. We also assumed a fugitive from justice would not have been given a free Get Out of Jail card just for having been appointed to the planning commission.
The prominent citizens and the court have led the public into this sort of speculation, already being labeled "cynical" by the newspaper. In light of the "prominent residents" letter campaign and the court's decision concerning Buendia's bail, the view that emerges is that the DA's office is on a collision course with powerful local special interests involved with Firm Build, inevitable given the nature of Firm Build and the elevation of Buendia to planning commissioner status. Assuming the DA's office has done a thorough job of investigation, which we think is fair to assume, leads us to speculate that local special interests suspect that some of the evidence against Firm Build involves their relations with it. Probably, these interests do not want this information to become public. The DA, in order to make his case, may have to use all or part of evidence potentially embarrassing to local special interests. Perhaps some of the evidence is actually incriminating. Investigations of this nature tend to go thither and yon. Motions to suppress parts of the evidence in these cases will be interesting to watch if any of the cases ever come to trial at all.
The public should not have to make such speculation, but there are instances in which felonies are the only plausible explanations for the facts. Evidently, in the mind of the prosecutor, Firm Build's career is one of them. Otherwise, we speculate, the DA's office would not have brought the charges and started this fight against what looks like most of the special interests in the county, represented one way or another by these "prominent citizens."
The policy breached by this "prominent" support of Buendia is that public officials should avoid the appearance of corruption, a policy broad enough to include political pressure on the judicial branch of government. The reason for this excellent policy, older than Aristotle, is that the appearance of corruption causes grumbing among the people and speculations concerning misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance involving public office and public funds, political intimidation of the judicial process and other similar complaints.
Some say there is an elephant in this room: four of the five of those charged in the Firm Build case are Hispanics. Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in Merced County, more than 45 percent according to the 2000 US Census. Like any other ethnic group, Hispanics tend to rally around their members in times of trouble, right or wrong, despite Cicero's comment that "no single thing is so like one another, so exactly its counterpart, as all of us are to one another." So, there is also speculation that the charges are racially motivated, despite the fact that public funds are paid by everybody, not just Hispanics. The public has a clear, strong interest in the prosecution of embezzlement and grand theft of public funds, especially in a program designed to train unemployed teens, probably mostly Hispanic, in useful trades. Nevertheless, the political dynamics play differently, which is the best reason for keeping politics out of the courtroom, as the wise Founding Fathers recommended and established in the laws of separation of branches of government.
The "prominent residents" crossed that line and have meddled with and muddied these cases, especially the charges against the fugitive planning commissioner. The local "leadership" is reacting in self-defense against the public interest of prosecuting indicted felons. There is a point in public affairs when corruption makes government and its special interest masters look so stupid that they become completely reactionary. We have probably reached that stage of political affairs in Merced as well as in the nation at large.
Meanwhile, the public should support the DA and the Firm Build group the old-fashioned way, by giving both a fair hearing in a court of law from impartial judges without anymore political meddling...
Dismissal denied in Firm Build teen-asbestos case
By VICTOR A. PATTON
The judge in the Firm Build asbestos case has denied a defense motion that would have dismissed the entire case against defendants Rudy Buendia III, Joseph Cuellar and Patrick Bowman.
Defense attorneys recently filed the motion in Judge John Kirihara's court.
They contended that the case against their clients should be set aside because the prosecution failed to provide members of the Merced County grand jury proper instructions in November 2010.
Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall disputed the motion, saying the grand jury was instructed properly. Even if the defense's claims were true, Wall argued, they would amount to a harmless error and would not affect the charges.
Kirihara sided with the prosecution in denying the motion during a hearing Tuesday.
The defendants, all former executives with the defunct nonprofit Firm Build, are suspected of using at least nine high school students to remove asbestos from a renovation project at Castle Commerce Center from September 2005 to March 2006.
All three have pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include dozens of federal and state asbestos exposure violations.
Evidentiary hearings in the Firm Build case were launched in Kirihara's court May 15, in response to another motion filed by the defense. Bowman is represented by Ralph Temple, Buendia is represented by Kirk McAllister and Cuellar is represented by Douglas Foster.
With the latest motion, defense attorneys are hoping to dismiss roughly 12 charges against each of their clients, claiming the three-year statute of limitations had run out.
Lee Andersen, former Merced County Office of Education superintendent, was among the first witnesses called to testify last week.
Andersen's time as the superintendent came under the scrutiny of prosecutors with the Stanislaus County District Attorney's office last year. They accused Andersen of breaking the state's mandated reporting law (a misdemeanor) because he knew the students were exposed to asbestos, but waited more than a year to notify law enforcement.
The law requires educators to report child abuse or neglect to law enforcement within 36 hours of receiving the information. Still, the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office determined Andersen couldn't be prosecuted because the one-year statute of limitations had run out.
Stanislaus County prosecutors were asked by Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II to investigate Andersen, because a possible conflict of interest existed with Morse's office.
While on the stand last week, Andersen reiterated testimony he gave to the Merced County grand jury in 2010, saying he directed staff to look into the exposure allegations when he found out about them in 2008.
"The conclusion that we drew was that students might have been exposed to asbestos on the work site," Andersen said.
Under questioning from Wall, Andersen testified that because the possible asbestos exposure happened in the past (in 2005-06), he wasn't personally obliged to report it.
Before the hearing, Andersen's attorney Kath-erine Hart said her client would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, unless he was granted immunity by the prosecution to testify. The prosecution granted Andersen's request, with the condition that his testimony was truthful.
Morse said his office allowed Andersen to have immunity because Stanislaus County prosecutors already had determined the one-year statute of limitations had run out.
"He has information that I believe can help us establish the sequence of events," Morse said.
The victims, who were about 16 and 17 between 2005 and 2006, allegedly removed asbestos from the Automotive Training Center without the required safety equipment, on numerous occasions, under the direction of Firm Build.
Many of those victims, who are now grown men, have hired attorneys and are pursuing a civil case against Merced County Office of Education.
The hearings in the Firm Build case are scheduled to continue on July 10.
The three defendants are free on bail.