Leave it to Larry Stone, the county assessor, to call it like he sees it when the vast majority of his fellow elected officials have danced around the issue of Supervisor George Shirakawa’s flagrant misuse of taxpayer money.
Stone spoke during the public comments portion of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, laying into county administrators’ lack of oversight when monitoring elected officials’ use of county credit cards, also known as P-Cards. In an interview with San Jose Inside on Friday, Stone expanded on his comments.
“It’s totally a problem with oversight and enforcement,” Stone said, referencing County Executive Jeff Smith and others’ suggestions that P-Card policies were unclear or confusing. “The policies and procedures are fine.”
Noting changes in the policy that occurred in 2003—the P-Card pilot program began in 2001—Stone said the program “was not decentralized and never has been.” If anything, Stone said, the changes “added a front line of oversight.” The P-Card policy, which strictly prohibits personal expenses with the card, purchases of alcohol and sets limits on meal reimbursements and per-diems, was updated as recently as 2011.
A county audit this week instructed Shirakawa to reimburse $12,772 in P-Card purchases, in addition to the more than $7,000 he has already paid back. While some have argued that Shirakawa treated the money as a loan, Stone disagreed, saying the moral equivalent would be a bank robber returning money after being caught.
“I would take exception to the term ‘a loan,’” Stone said. “A loan is when there’s an agreement between the lender and the borrower.
“It’s not good enough to say, ‘I reimbursed it.’”
More than half of the money Shirakawa has already repaid the county came after Metro’s Public Records Act requests into his P-Card. Weeks later, a Metro report detailed the supervisor’s free spending on personal vacations, golf trips, casinos, and frequent lunches and dinners for friends and political allies.
In addition to Stone, Supervisor Ken Yeager, who will inherit the title of board president from Shirakawa next month, has pursued more transparency in P-Card audits. As the story continues to be a focus of local media outlets, and the trust in county financial controls diminishes, it seems Yeager and his fellow supervisors are growing impatient for answers, similar to Stone.
“What makes me agitated is that this reflects on all of us, all of us who are elected officials,” Stone said. “It creates this perception where the public says, ‘There they go again.’ The overwhelming majority of people who work for the county abide by the rules and policies.”
On Tuesday, during the discussion of P-Card policies, Smith said that the mechanisms to catch abuses could have been hampered by employees being intimidated by board members.
“There is clearly a differential of power—the feeling that people don’t want to challenge the board members,” Smith said. “There’s been reluctance to point out things that don’t make sense, and they haven’t felt comfortable bouncing that up the chain of command.”
Stone said he believes Smith was unaware of Shirakawa’s misuse of county funds, but that it should not matter.
“I just have a feeling that he did not know,” Stone said. “And the fact that he did not know is a serious problem. If something of this magnitude was going on in my office and I didn’t know about it, there’d be hell to pay. There’d be heads rolling.
“That doesn’t relieve the county executive of responsibility.”