Santa Clara County debt collectors mixed him up with his dead dad. Election chiefs broke the law by not reporting his missing campaign files. And three audits overlooked his charges for "county business" billed from far-flung casinos and golf fairways.

A trail of embarrassing inaction at numerous levels of county government enabled the years-long crime spree of disgraced former Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr., who will be sentenced in the coming weeks for perjury and misuse of public funds.

Despite years of red flags that a high-profile elected official was up to no good, nobody sounded significant alarm until September, when a scrappy weekly newspaper published a mocking exposé on Shirakawa's sloppy record-keeping. Local prosecutors and the state's political watchdog instantly perked up, launching investigations that resulted in the San Jose politician's resignation and a March 18 guilty plea.

George Shirakawa Jr. leaves the courtroom at Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose, Calif. on Monday, March 18, 2013. Shirakawa pleaded guilty to
George Shirakawa Jr. leaves the courtroom at Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose, Calif. on Monday, March 18, 2013. Shirakawa pleaded guilty to five felonies, including four counts of perjury and one count of misappropriation of public funds, as well as seven misdemeanors for failing to file accurate campaign reports. (Gary Reyes/ Staff) (Gary Reyes)

The failure to stop Shirakawa has been costly. His donors, who thought they were supporting his political career, unwittingly provided more than $100,000 that the twice-elected supervisor dropped on casino floors. And the price of a June election and an expected runoff could go beyond $2 million.

"Why didn't anybody else do anything?" asked 25-year-old Jimi Kogura, a lifelong resident of Shirakawa's district. Kogura, who has a degree in accounting, is among those baffled by the oversight failures. "Somebody else needs to be held accountable. When all those things were going on on a regular basis, you'd think people would say, 'Are you sure this is right, George?' "

County Executive Jeff Smith admits to some "very big" mistakes but says they have since been corrected. A large problem resulted from smaller ones, he noted, adding that it is hard to prepare for the totally unexpected. "In this situation, no one expected such peculiar behavior from an elected official," Smith said. "We were all surprised."

The overlooked signs first surfaced at the county Registrar of Voters office, where Shirakawa failed to file campaign reports for a school board race as early as 2003. He was not penalized, in part, because a year earlier the office had stopped reporting non-filers to law enforcement or the state -- even though doing so is a requirement of the California Political Reform Act. Interim Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey said the decision was made because of "lack of responsiveness" to such reports from the local district attorney and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.

Asked if she understood that the law required such reporting, Bushey, an office employee since 1995 who hopes to be named registrar, responded: "Honestly, I would have to look at the act."

Nonetheless, Bushey's signature appears on 16 letters sent to Shirakawa between 2008 and 2011 about his missing filings, just below a sentence in bold stating: "You will be referred to the FPPC Enforcement Division and the Santa Clara County District Attorney if the statements are not filed," or a variation of that wording. He never was.

"I'm glad they can make state law in their office," FPPC's chief enforcement officer, Gary Winuk, said sarcastically. "The law says they need to report it; there are no exceptions."

The registrar did fine Shirakawa for his missing campaign filings, but when he didn't pay those fines, his accounts were kicked to a second county agency. The county Department of Revenue's threats to take Shirakawa to small claims court, intercept his tax refund and garnish his wages appear to have gone mostly unnoticed by higher-ups.

At one point, Revenue Collections Director Susan Ping Wong's pursuit was delayed because she was uncertain Shirakawa, elected in 2008, was still in office -- even though his name was on the county letterhead. In an Aug. 26, 2011, email she asked colleagues: "What is that status of the Shirakawa account? I believe we put it on hold, while I determined if he is still a BOS member or not." She later added that at a Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting she could "see that he is still a sitting board member."

Wong said toward the end of 2011 through September 2012 she "periodically updated" her boss, Finance Director Vinod Sharma, about Shirakawa: "Updates to Mr. Sharma were to apprise him of the account status and that no action was needed on his part."

Meanwhile, there were roughly three years where at least some of the collections efforts halted altogether. That's because two of Shirakawa's delinquent accounts were misidentified by a new computer system as being those of his father, George Shirakawa Sr., who died in 1994. It took the department 15 months to identify the problem.

When yet another county agency, the Controller-Treasurer's office, had the chance to cry foul over Shirakawa's use of a county credit card at casinos and golf courses -- and on 174 mostly unauthorized restaurant meals -- employees there missed chances as well. On three occasions, the agency said it conducted audits of his credit card but somehow found only minor infractions. In one instance, an audit noted a lack of "the required signatures" on vague Missing Receipt Memos -- but failed to question why Shirakawa had lost the itemized receipts for up to three-fourths of his transactions.

During the periods the audits were conducted in each month of 2009 and six months of 2010, Shirakawa spent $294.02 on seven full racks of baby back ribs and all the trimmings for one of numerous staff bashes in violation of county policies. Also overlooked was the charge from Harvey's Casino in Stateline, Nev., and a $789.71 luxury car rental for an extended Southern California jaunt.

Although the Controller-Treasurer's office consistently referred to the examination of Shirakawa's spending that missed these and many more blatant violations as audits, Sharma now calls them "reviews" done by "paraprofessional" accounting assistants. "These have been taken to be audit reports, which they certainly are not," Sharma said.

Indeed, the work was performed by the claims unit, not the more experienced Internal Audit Division, and its reports used boilerplate language to state the District 2 office records were "well organized and maintained."

Sharma said the fact that his office missed nearly $30,000 of inappropriate spending needs to be put in perspective. "Out of a $4 billion budget, $30,000 is not a material amount," he said. "The controls are generally working."

County Executive Smith sits atop the chain. But he says that although he meets with all his department heads every month, no one ever mentioned Shirakawa's questionable spending, delinquent fines or blatant disregard of campaign rules. Smith has said Eddie Garcia, Shirakawa's former chief of staff, approved his boss's expenses and entered those claims into the county's computerized system -- and his approval kept them from outside scrutiny. Garcia has since been let go from the District 2 staff.

Supervisor Dave Cortese and his colleagues are satisfied with 252 pages of revised rules they hastily approved to prevent future abuses. But Cortese conceded there has been little effort to determine what went wrong. "We didn't dwell in the past," he said. "We started focusing on remedial measures immediately and I don't think we really looked at what exactly broke down."

Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.