The Unraveling of George Shirakawa Jr.

It’s always a shame to let facts interfere with a good story, but county Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr.‘s downfall didn’t start with a hushed voice from a trench coat in the dark corners of a parking garage.

There was no Deep Throat, no tip from political enemies or former associates, such as political consultant Rich Robinson, who had every right to be disgruntled considering he was owed more than $40,000 as recently as last fall for his work on Shirakawa’s 2008 supervisor campaign. And there were no anonymous voicemails from spurned lovers or a print shop that Shirakawa also owed money to.

Instead, the 20-year political career, which took off when his father died in office and he was appointed to the San Jose City Council in 1994, unraveled because of a simple question: Why does a politician need to raise money when he’s unopposed for re-election?

That observation led to a routine inspection of campaign disclosure documents—and, ultimately, to last week’s dramatic events. Accompanied by his attorney Friday morning, Shirakawa surrendered himself to the county jail for booking on five felony charges.

In an email message to constituents later that morning, the county supervisor resigned, saying that he suffered from depression and a gambling addiction, and that he would plead guilty on March 18 to four counts of felony perjury, one felony count of misappropriation of public funds and seven misdemeanors related to not filing campaign disclosure forms.

In the last five years, Shirakawa moved more than $130,000 in and out of campaign accounts, the public treasury and a slush fund to support an opulent lifestyle and gambling habit, according to an affidavit filed by the District Attorney’s Office.

While Metro‘s investigation started with a basic question, the findings only prompted more questions than answers. The county Registrar of Voters told Metro that Shirakawa had skipped eight forms relating to his 2008 run for supervisor, which rang up almost $110,000 in debt, and that he had been notified repeatedly. The DA noted in its affidavit last week that no fewer than 16 reminders were sent to Shirakawa’s home demanding that he submit the forms.

When Shirakawa and his chief of staff, Eddie Garcia, sat down with Metro to discuss the missing forms, both men’s hubris was on full display. Shirakawa stammered out excuses while maintaining in the same breath that there was no excuse, while Garcia sat uncomfortably aside, possibly wondering why the hell he ever agreed to an interview.

District Attorney Jeff Rosen said at a press conference Friday that his office investigated the supervisor’s misuse of campaign and public funds as a result of Metro’s September 2012 report—which featured Shirakawa and Garcia laughing off evidence of illegal campaign activity—as well as a Public Records Act (PRA) request Metro made regarding Shirakawa’s county charge card activity.

As a result of the expected criminal conviction, Shirakawa will never serve as an elected official in California again. He will be required to pay $50,000 in fines to the Fair Political practices Commission (FPPC), which aided the DA in subpoenaing Shirakawa’s bank account records, and more than $6,000 in further restitution to the county. (He has already repaid more than $7,000.) He will lose his pension, which is likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he will spend up to a year behind bars, if the DA gets his way.

“Jail,” Rosen said Friday. “I don’t mean picking up trash or weekend work.”

Shirakawa’s missing campaign reports proved to be just the iceberg’s tip. When Metro followed up, looking into Shirakawa’s county P-Card, it became clear that Shirakawa was broke and was clinging to the charge plate for walking-around money. Again, Shirakawa shielded his activities by refusing to submit the required itemized receipts.

Dozens of Public Record Act (PRA) requests and a scavenger hunt of some of Shirakawa’s favorite haunts, in which Metro tracked down itemized receipts through nearly a dozen restaurants’ point-of-sale systems, resulted in one awkward moment when a restaurant manager asked, “Do you need anything else, Mr. Shirakawa?” The sleuthing turned up the $100 steaks, lunches with red velvet cake, Diet Cokes and, in a coupe cases, the purchase of alcohol.

A dinner receipt from P.F. Chang’s on Feb. 17, 2012, in which Shirakawa bought food and drinks for San Jose Councilman Xavier Campos and Assistant City Manager Norberto Dueñas, showed that in addition to lettuce wraps, egg rolls and other appetizers, the supervisor also bought a Devil’s Canyon Amber Draft, Stella Artois and a piña colada.

Shirakawa managed to escape detection of this charge, like so many others, by not providing a detailed receipt for the meal. He could have found himself in even deeper legal trouble had the county done a better job of drafting its missing receipt document. Shirakawa signed a missing itemized receipt memo many times that declared no alcohol was ever purchased, but it didn’t require him to attest under penalty of perjury.

“Unfortunately, the county devised a form that did not have what’s called an ‘enabling clause,’ so the form the county was using didn’t have any teeth,” DA prosecutor Karyn Sinunu-Towery explained Friday.

In his message Friday to constituents, Shirakawa wrote: “For years I have suffered from depression and a gambling addiction. Unfortunately, my gambling addiction went untreated for too long, which led to bad decisions and actions that I deeply regret.”

Sources tell Metro that Shirakawa started receiving treatment for his gambling addiction sometime in the last half of 2012, but the first step to recovery—acknowledging the problem, at least publicly—didn’t occur until the jig was essentially up.

On Dec. 4, Shirakawa defended himself against an onslaught of damning media reports by throwing out the race card and even noting his allegiance to the Oakland Raiders.

The investigations into Shirakawa’s activity, by the DA and media outlets, will continue, though.

Due to his still missing campaign forms, and the fact that Shirakawa has yet to meet with investigators, the DA still doesn’t know how he loaned his supervisorial run $78,100 in 2008, if he received money in exchange for votes on land deals or county contracts, or if he had any help in keeping the deception a secret. Incompetence on the part of auditors and the finance department seems too convenient in this case.

“We don’t have the answers to all of the questions,” Rosen said Friday. “I made a decision here that we needed to move quickly in this case, and carefully, but we can’t wait until we’ve answered all of the questions out there before filing charges.

“If we waited to answer all the questions you have and that we have, we would be years away from concluding this.”

That would likely be the case, regardless of whether Shirakawa spent his days sitting on a hard jail seat or a high-backed supervisor’s chair, waiting for the full story to come to light.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

5 Comments

  1. You might be tired of hearing it already Mr Koehn but a very heartfelt thank you from this member of the voting public.  Your tenacity with this story has freed the public from the choke hold not only Shirakawa has had on the district but his cronies on the political process in Santa Clara County.  Finally there is some hope for a brighter and fairer political dawn.

  2. I think we all understand the judicial system well enough to know that a guilty plea, whether to one or a dozen charges, carries with it the implication that other charges have been dropped, or a reduced sentence offered. Interestingly, neither has been revealed in this case, nor have I seen any evidence of this line of questioning having been pursued by the media.

    This raises two questions. First, were some charges dropped, and if so, what particular criminal acts were excused? Second, did Shirakawa agree to the plea contingent upon the DA’s promise not to seek a state prison term?

    I believe the public has an absolute right to this information. Mr. Shirakawa’s right to privacy has been forfeited by his conduct; the public has a right to know the full extent of the defendant’s lawbreaking (at least to the degree uncovered by the investigation), as well as the full extent of the misfeasance on the part of those county officials who are paid by taxpayers to enforce the rules and the law. Taxpayers deserve to know the names, titles, duties, and detailed descriptions of the failures of each official, so that they might take action through their representatives to convey their displeasure with the disservice rendered.

    Absent full disclosure by the DA, I cannot see how an intelligent observer could conclude anything other than that this was not a two-party plea deal, but instead a deal that was made to protect the interests of parties unnamed and/or enhance the DA’s political capital. In other words, political business as usual in Santa Clara County—another damn cover-up.

  3. ANY public official who betrays the the trust given by the Public deserves what they get , and maybe more . There should be no plea deals , No understandings , No payback after the facts , No cover ups . EVERYTHING needs to be out in the open .

  4. > … such as political consultant Rich Robinson, who had every right to be disgruntled considering he was owed more than $40,000 as recently as last fall for his work on Shirakawa’s 2008 supervisor campaign.

    I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT!

    Rich Robinson is up to his eyeballs in the Shirakawa scandals.

    It sounds like Rich may have invested $40,000 worth of non-remunerated sweat equity in trying to make a political silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

  5. You know what they say about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  If Shirakawa had been like Cortese it’d have been a story that only the hardcore readers of SanJoseInside would have cared about.  Shirakawa would still be buying beers for his buddies with County money if you hadn’t made the effort to get a minor story.

    Something in this article caught my attention:

    Shirakawa managed to escape detection of this charge, like so many others, by not providing a detailed receipt for the meal. He could have found himself in even deeper legal trouble had the county done a better job of drafting its missing receipt document. Shirakawa signed a missing itemized receipt memo many times that declared no alcohol was ever purchased, but it didn’t require him to attest under penalty of perjury.

    “Unfortunately, the county devised a form that did not have what’s called an ‘enabling clause,’ so the form the county was using didn’t have any teeth,” DA prosecutor Karyn Sinunu-Towery explained Friday.

    So is the County going to add an “enabling clause” to its form?  If not, why not?