California Nonprofit Execs Accused of Exposing Teens to Health Risks

May 24, 2010

Three executives of a now-defunct California nonprofit that provided job training for young people knowingly placed dozens of teenagers in jobs that exposed them to asbestos, prosecutors say.

The nonprofit Firm Build sent teens to remove asbestos from an old building between 2005 and 2006, according to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.

The workers say they were only given cotton masks and goggles, not the protective suits required to handle cancer-causing asbestos.

Lease documents show that Firm Build executives knew about the asbestos problem in the building, but prosecutors allege they lied to county officials about the renovation work.

Prosecutors have identified at least five victims but say as many as 80 may have been affected. None has reported any health problems from the asbestos so far.

“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,” District Attorney Larry Morse II said Thursday.

Rudy Buendia III, 47, Patrick Bowman, 43, and Joseph Cuellar, 70, turned themselves in to authorities this week. They face charges of child endangerment and knowingly exposing someone to harmful materials.

Attorneys for the men denied the allegations but said they haven’t seen the charges yet.

Attorney Kirk McAllister, who represents Buendia, suggested the asbestos case is politically motivated because a previous case involving Firm Build, alleging embezzlement of project funds, had stalled.

“I assume that the new charges, which relate to the same old case, are simply more payback,” McAllister said.

Information from: Merced Sun-Star, http://www.mercedsun-star.com

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