As questions have mounted about his expense account abuses, campaign reporting violations and personal bankruptcy filing, supporters of Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. have sung a common refrain: He's a good man, just "sloppy" on the details.

But an extensive review of public records indicates that Shirakawa's financial improprieties are more numerous than previously understood -- including tax liens and unpaid debts large and small -- and that he has resisted numerous official efforts to get him to toe the line. This newspaper's review also suggests a reason for some of his troubles: Shirakawa frequents casinos and appears to have accumulated gambling-related debts.

The supervisor repeatedly has declined to speak to reporters at this newspaper, while proclaiming in public appearances that he is being persecuted because of his mixed-race heritage and liberal views. Yet others describe the 50-year-old's problems as part of a long-existing pattern.

"He's been doing this all of his life as an adult," said Gil Villagran, a lecturer in San Jose State's school of social work who was close to Shirakawa's father, a former San Jose councilman. "People who care about him should say, 'George, you should step down before you're either recalled or put in jail. This is an embarrassment to all of us.' "

Among Shirakawa's lapses:


Advertisement

  • At the time he filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 2011, court filings showed that Shirakawa owed the Internal Revenue Service $195,121.95 in delinquent income taxes and penalties and was at risk of losing his family home in foreclosure. Among his list of creditors were two Nevada banks and an outfit that cashes paychecks in casinos.

  • While the state's political watchdog agency began its recent investigation in response to the supervisor's failure to disclose campaign contributions during his 2008 run for office, Shirakawa did not disclose his campaign donors on time -- or at all -- for races dating back to 2002. As of Jan. 31, he still has not filed nine reports from his 2008 campaign, nor one from his 2012 race, despite mounting scrutiny that began with media accounts of the missing campaign statements in September.

  • Over the years, the county Registrar of Voters office has sent Shirakawa 26 warning letters for failing to file campaign disclosure statements on time, which have led to county Department of Revenue fines that so far total $22,557, about half of which he has paid. No other Santa Clara County supervisor in recent memory has received a fine, the registrar's office said.

  • Public records reveal that Shirakawa's office continues to provide unsatisfactory answers to the District Attorney's Office, which is investigating his misuse of his county expense account. The DA's office so far has made 102 requests of the county counsel for more information about questionable charges. Shirakawa has reimbursed some of those charges after county auditors concluded they were improper. Last month, however, his fellow supervisors ordered him to repay even more -- $29,540 in unauthorized charitable donations he made with taxpayer funds.

    Shirakawa's supporters say he is being unfairly scrutinized. They insist he is a solid representative of his working-class district, championing the causes of immigrants, prisoners re-entering society and neglected neighborhoods. They brush off the potentially severe implications of ongoing investigations by the DA's office and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.

    Larry Esquivel, San Jose's acting police chief, remains one of his closest friends -- over the years, the two were among a small group that co-owned property in town.

    Developer John Vidovich, another longtime supporter, pledged to contribute to Shirakawa's newly established legal defense fund, if asked. The fund so far has just one donation: $100, from Shirakawa.

    "I'm proud of my relationship with George, and I will do what I think is appropriate," Vidovich said. "George is disorganized and he is sloppy, but he is effective for his district -- and his district is not well-off."

    Shirakawa's current troubles began with the campaign filing violations. In each of his past four races -- two for the East Side Union High School District and two for supervisor -- Shirakawa has failed to submit required contribution reports on time. While he has now filed all the forms related to his school board races, he has yet to pay all the fines for submitting them late, or for the first fine related to his overdue 2008 supervisorial campaign reports.

    Disclosing campaign contributions is a vital litmus test for politicians, said Daniel Newman, who heads Berkeley-based MapLight, a nonpartisan research group that focuses on money and politics.

    "The transparency of showing who's funding the lawmaker makes it possible for voters to judge: Are they making decisions properly, or are they showing bias in favor of people who invest money in their campaign?" Newman said. "It's a check against buying influence -- people are less likely to show bias and corrupt behavior when they have to at least disclose the source of their money."

    In Shirakawa's case, the missed disclosures over the past four years have added importance, for two reasons: First, the county has campaign contribution limits of $500 per donor per primary or general election campaign; it is impossible to know whether Shirakawa is complying with them. More importantly, contributions made to Shirakawa since 2008 may enrich him personally, rather than his campaign. Because he loaned his campaign account $78,100 for his supervisorial race that year, he is allowed to pay himself back from campaign funds.

    While he has struggled to follow the rules of elected office, the supervisor, who earns a $143,031 salary, also has struggled to keep his private affairs in order -- beginning with his home. In mid-2005, after his mother died, Shirakawa and his two siblings inherited the modest one-story house on Apollo Drive where they grew up. Records show that less than a year later, in spring 2006, Shirakawa took out a line of credit on the house, where he lives, for $185,000. One month later, he received a conventional loan for $250,000. By 2008, the city of San Jose placed a lien against the home: Shirakawa had failed to pay a $172 garbage bill that was in his name.

    Two years later, when overdue mortgage payments and other charges had grown to $32,158, the bank threatened to sell the property. To avoid foreclosure, in March 2011 Shirakawa filed for emergency Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

    That pursuit was abandoned eight months later, after Shirakawa received a home loan modification, and he asked and was granted a dismissal of the bankruptcy case, still owing creditors. But his bankruptcy court filings show Shirakawa had dug himself into a foxhole of debt: Along with the six figures he owed the IRS, he also reported that he was struggling to pay on two auto loans, one of which is 15 years old -- a $13,751 debt on a 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe with 200,000 miles, and $9,593 on a 2005 Tahoe.

    Court filings and other public documents show additional financial hiccups apparently related to Shirakawa's visits to casinos. His early list of creditors in 2011 included a notice from Certegy, a Tampa, Fla.-based company whose business is providing 24/7 check-cashing services in more than 300 casinos nationwide.

    What's more, on the three occasions where Shirakawa has written letters to county staff explaining misuse of his county credit card, all were charges at different casinos he later described as inadvertent. The amounts were small -- less than $300 total -- but his explanations resonated. In a letter dated May 5, 2011, Shirakawa explained one errant charge by saying: "My personal and business information are on the same profile at Harrah's Entertainment."

    Given his personal financial difficulties and his use of county credit cards for meals and entertainment, it's noteworthy that in January 2009 -- his first month in county office -- Shirakawa held a "staff retreat" at Harrah's Entertainment, a Reno casino. The supervisor used $3,512 in campaign funds for the retreat, filings show.

    Investigators with the DA's office have expressed frustration with Shirakawa's accountings, as well as the county's poor oversight. In a harshly worded letter last month, Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery submitted her 102nd request to the county counsel's office, describing the inquiry as an examination of "Supervisor Shirakawa's misuse of taxpayer's money."

    The specifics she cited had not previously been raised in media reports or by county auditors, signaling that Shirakawa's expense issues are far from over. She asked why the supervisor billed taxpayers $663.77 for 1,077 miles on a rental car in San Diego in May -- given that the trip appeared to be a one-day ceremonial ship launching; and why Shirakawa's office rented the Hayes Mansion in San Jose in January 2010 for another staff retreat that cost $937, later spending $715.49 on prize wheels and bingo cards. "What is the justification for purchasing games at taxpayer expense?" Sinunu-Towery wrote.

    While his supporters agree that Shirakawa has record-keeping challenges, they refuse to believe he engaged in intentional wrongdoing. They are waiting to see the outcome of the investigations under way before passing judgment.

    "It's obvious that George has made some mistakes, which I believe can be corrected," said Frank Biehl, president of the East Side Union High School District board. "But the ultimate judgment belongs to the voters in the district."

    Contact Tracy Seipel at tseipel@mercurynews.com or 408-275-0140. Contact Karen de Sá at kdesa@mercurynews.com408-920-5781.