Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. continues to resist reimbursing taxpayers for portions of the tens of thousands of dollars in public funds he misspent, including nearly $30,000 in donations to charitable causes that county auditors call unauthorized.

During a lengthy discussion Tuesday about what his fellow supervisors could legally demand he repay, Shirakawa sat in silence, staring intently at his laptop screen and hardly looking up. But when it came time for a vote, the longtime public official -- who faces a criminal probe and a state investigation of his ongoing failure to disclose 2008 campaign donors -- made a brief statement.

"I disagree with the auditor's findings," he said. He vowed to submit his arguments in advance of the Feb. 4 board meeting and warned: "You'll be hearing from me."

Shirakawa then abstained from a 4-0 vote that gives him just 30 days to repay $29,540 in charitable donations and contributions to community groups he made during his four years as supervisor. Those donations included $18,250 paid with a county direct-pay account and $11,290 that he and his staff charged to county credit cards without the necessary approvals from the full board. In some instances, the charges directly violated county policies. In others, the legal language was unclear, but county Finance Director Vinod Sharma has maintained the payments were clearly unauthorized and therefore should be repaid.


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With regard to some of the charges on the county's direct-pay account, Sharma conceded county policies were muddied. The rules "did not specifically prohibit it, but they did not allow it," he told supervisors, adding nonetheless: "My recommendation is that he should return the money."

That assessment threw county officials into a kerfuffle over what reimbursements they can insist upon, a problem heightened by Shirakawa's objections to some of the auditor's findings released last month. County Counsel Lori Pegg has clashed with Sharma, saying that aside from $6,250 in charges that clearly violated a 2011 policy prohibiting donations made on county-issued credit cards, supervisors may not have clear legal authority to demand that he repay the balance of the donated funds.

Shirakawa has seized on the ambiguities, resisting cries from some constituents, political watchdogs and ethicists, who object to the gifts of public funds the supervisor bestowed upon groups of his choice.

Thus, Supervisor Dave Cortese said he and his colleagues had to take a stand. "The taxpayers of Santa Clara County want us to do this, they want these items reimbursed," he said. "So where we could require it, we required it, and when we couldn't require it, we put in a formal demand."

Repaying the inappropriate donations is only a small portion of the troubles burdening Shirakawa, the District 2 supervisor. In addition to possible criminal charges for broader misuse of his county-issued credit cards, Shirakawa faces tens of thousands of dollars in fines from the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. Two county audits have found he misused public funds since 2009, and aside from the donation repayments, he has also been called upon to repay restaurant meals and other personal charges on his county-issued credit card.

Over the years, when called upon the supervisor has reimbursed $7,252 for charges that include expenses at Harvey's Casino, two golf courses, liquor purchased at meals and registration fees for a state Democratic convention. Two nonprofit community groups -- Asian Americans for Community Involvement and an arts school at the Mexican Heritage Plaza -- voluntarily have returned a total of $1,000 in donations they received from Shirakawa.

Revelations in the media of Shirakawa's spending have prompted a massive overhaul of county rules, including a moratorium passed Tuesday on individual supervisors making charitable donations with public funds.

Cortese said he hopes Shirakawa "reconsiders" his objections to repay the donations he made.

Newly elected Supervisor Joe Simitian, a former state senator, expressed concern over the general confusion, and said he worried the board's action could come back to bite them. "To call this conversation untidy is to give it all the breaks," he said, adding that he feared the supervisors' action could lead to future arguments that they did not provide Shirakawa his right to due process.

Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.