Anonymous mailers during the June primary called Carrasco’s campaign an effort by “L.A. politicians” to subvert San Jose politics. Nora Campos’ statements during the general election came from the same playbook. “What promises has [Carrasco] been making down in Southern California” in exchange for contributions, she asked.
Carrasco placed a call to Shirakawa before formally announcing her candidacy, “out of courtesy,” she told the Santa Clara County Grand Jury empaneled to investigate the illegal activity that cost her the election. Shirakawa agreed to meet at a Starbucks to discuss her candidacy. She quickly realized the meeting was anything but business. It was personal.
“He stated, ‘You will not get the endorsement of labor and it is highly improbable that you will get [Chamber of Commerce]’s endorsement, which means that you will not win,’” Carrasco said. “‘And as a result of you not winning, your future in San Jose will be over.’”
The conversation struck her as joke at first, but Shirakawa wasn’t smiling.
“Because I have never been spoken to like that before, I laughed,” Carrasco told the grand jury. “I thought I was being punked, like the show [Punk’d]. And so I kind of started looking around for a camera because I thought it was funny, and then I realized it wasn’t a joke, and I quickly realized I was being threatened.
“I said to him, ‘I am sorry you feel that way. I would hope that if I win that we have an opportunity to work together, there is a lot of work to be done. On the East Side of San Jose there is a lot of needs.’ I went on, you know, to try and appease him a little bit. He wasn’t very pleased with that conversation. He, you know, was very stoic and said, ‘You know, these aren’t games, Magdalena. There is a lot at stake and, you know, we will see what happens. You have gone ahead and taken your steps, you have decided this is what you are going to do, there is no going back now, you know, but there is a lot at stake.’”
Meanwhile, Nora Campos was flexing her own political muscle, meeting with Carrasco’s then-campaign manager, Lisa Jensen. Having served on the planning commission with Xavier Campos and a community committee with Campos’ mother, Jensen figured the meeting would be a mostly cordial affair. But Jensen, who at the time had her own political aspirations, told the grand jury that Nora Campos threatened her and Carrasco.
“Nora did not suggest that I discourage Magdalena from running,” Jensen said. “She did suggest that as a friend of labor, as a friend of other friends of ours, that what I was doing was wrong, that my candidate was a horrible human being who didn’t deserve to have that office, that her brother was far and away the best and the brightest and needed to be there. And I referred to it as threatening in part due to the tone of voice she used with me and in part due to an understanding of the strength of the political allies that Campos family has.
“It was very negative,” Jensen also told the grand jury. “And if I had thought about it at great length, I would have felt as though it was slightly threatening. And I understand, you know, she is talking about her baby brother, right? She doesn’t want somebody who is friends of friends of hers to work for an opponent of her baby brother’s. I just chalked it up to protective older sister getting a little overly aggressive.”
The real aggression came later, in the form of a secret mailer that depicted Carrasco as a communist to Vietnamese voters in East San Jose. In statements to the grand jury, prosecutors allege that Nora Campos used money from her 2010 State Assembly race to fund that illegal attack.
The two-lane highway of political contributions is a value exchange all its own. It would make little sense for friends to give one another equal amounts of money within a short span of time, but campaign contributions can at times be symbolic, shows of support that even out down the road. But in the summer and fall of 2010, money flowed in and out of campaign accounts in an unusual fashion for Shirakawa and the Campos siblings.
Shirakawa’s money troubles began well before his 2008 county supervisor campaign, but they grew worse during the race, as he increasingly raided the coffers to fund trips to casinos. Nora Campos told the grand jury that Shirakawa—more than $100,000 in the red by the end of his campaign—called her to solicit $5,000 to help retire his debt in the summer of 2010. Without asking him for more information, she told prosecutors, her campaign sent over a check on June 24. The timing of that donation is curious for a few reasons.
First, prosecutors believe the fraudulent mailers connected to Shirakawa—lab technicians testified that his DNA was conclusively matched to a stamp on one of the attack pieces—went out sometime in or around May 1, 2010, and June 8, 2010.
Second, Shirakawa and Xavier Campos frequently lunched, sometimes at county expense—and it’s unknown what they discussed.
Third, Nora Campos contributed no money to her own little brother’s campaign.
“She makes a $5,000—a very large contribution to [Shirakawa] shortly after [Xavier’s] primary win,” prosecutor John Chase, head of the DA’s government integrity unit, told the grand jury. “And that is strong circumstantial evidence that this was more than a contribution, that this was some sort of an award or something to George Shirakawa for something he did. And what he did was participate in this flyer that’s illegal.”
It’s unknown how many fraudulent mailers, featuring Carrasco next to a bold red communist flag with a yellow star, went out to Vietnamese voters in East San Jose, but Carrasco and Jensen told the grand jury that a flood of angry calls came in just days before the polls opened.
“The first phone call was a very nice Vietnamese gentleman who was desperately trying to explain to me why I should never, ever, ever, ever send this out,” Carrasco said. “And I was trying to explain that that didn’t come from me, and he just wouldn’t have it.”
“I am allergic to that flag,” Phong Tan Huynh, who turned over a mailer to the DA’s office, told the grand jury.
Xavier Campos won the primary election over Carrasco by 20 votes.
The attack piece was eerily similar to one that went out during Shirakawa’s 2008 supervisor race, casting his opponent, Richard Hobbs, as a communist.
“[W]hen they receive a hit piece of this nature, it’s practically impossible to respond and debunk the lie,” Hobbs told the grand jury. He added that he didn’t call the police but did email the Mercury News editorial board to try and explain to voters that the mailer didn’t come from him. “As I recall, I emailed someone on the editorial board,” he said. “But I don’t think there was any response.”
The money trail from Nora Campos’ campaign to illegally fund her little brother’s candidacy could be much greater than $5,000, though. As she attempted to transition out of the District 5 council seat to a spot in the State Assembly, her campaign employed a team of political consultants—Ed McGovern (for $45,089) and the duo Ryan Ford and Rolando Bonilla (for $20,639)—at a total cost of $65,728. These three also worked on Xavier Campos’ council campaign, but free of charge.
Omar Torres, who worked on the councilman’s campaign but has since fallen out of favor with the Campos clan, said in his grand jury testimony that the consultants—especially Ford and Bonilla—were a consistent presence during the race against Carrasco.
The timing of one particular payment Nora Campos made to Ford and Bonilla appears especially conspicuous. Xavier Campos was unemployed and short on funds late in the fall runoff against Carrasco, and according to Torres, many within the councilman’s staff thought “he was going to lose the campaign.”
But on Oct. 25, 2010, just a week before the election, Campos loaned himself $10,000—roughly the same money he would later forgive when his delinquent campaign forms came to light. Less than a week after the 2010 runoff election, which Campos won by fewer than 400 votes, Nora Campos made a one-time payment of $10,150 to Ford and Bonilla.
Torres was not part of the Campos campaign’s inner circle, but in a conversation after the election, he told Carrasco he regretted his role in the race. “I said I don’t know if they did it, I don’t know what happened,” Torres told grand jurors, “but that the campaign was pretty slimy.”
Three Years Later
Last Friday, the same day his close friend and political mentor went to jail, Xavier Campos filed re-election papers with the San Jose city clerk’s office, seeking to remain in office for another four years.
Through a staffer, Mr. Campos declined requests to comment for this story.
While the California Fair Political Practices Commission investigation into his 2010 campaign will likely be complete by the time voters go to the polls in June, Shirakawa’s mail fraud trial could very well be ongoing.
At the same time, Nora Campos will also be campaigning for another term in the State Assembly. Her office also declined comment for this story.
As prosecutors explained to the grand jury, exercising one’s right to not self-incriminate should not infer guilt. This led one juror to say: “Are we allowed—we would like to know why we are not trying to indict Xavier. Is there not enough evidence?”
Another juror jumped in: “You can’t ask that.”
So, the questions remain, with Campos himself unwilling to discuss what knowledge, if any, he had about forged mailers, licked stamps, missed filings, odd payments and the stealing of the 2010 election from Magdalena Carrasco.