Demands for accountability, censure or at the very least an explanation are mounting in the wake of reports on the questionable spending of taxpayer funds by Santa Clara County Board President George Shirakawa, who charged his constituents for jaunts to casinos, golf courses and upscale eateries.
"The allegations against Supervisor Shirakawa are being taken seriously," Supervisor Ken Yeager said in a statement Monday. Noting ongoing investigations by the county District Attorney's Office, the Fair Political Practices Commission and the county Controller-Treasurer's Office, Yeager conceded: "Clearly, the county's oversight was ineffective in addressing Supervisor Shirakawa's behavior. The public continues to deserve an explanation from him."
Since 2009, Shirakawa has used his county-issued credit card, designed for office supplies and travel expenses, for more than 180 restaurant meals, in addition to charges at swank Las Vegas establishments and flight upgrades to first class that quadrupled the cost to taxpayers. Some of the charges have since been repaid with Shirakawa succinctly apologizing in handwritten notes to the county for inadvertently charging his constituents. But on dozens of occasions, Shirakawa has simply been unable to find the itemized receipts, filing "missing receipt memos" instead.
Shirakawa filed for personal bankruptcy last year and potentially faces tens of thousands of dollars in fines for failing to file a series
He and his top staff members have declined repeated interview requests, but Shirakawa has contracted a top-flight election law attorney, Thomas Willis of Remcho Johansen & Purcell, to represent him in his case before the state's political watchdog agency. Willis could not be reached for comment.
Steve Preminger, chairman of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, on Monday said the party "will stand with George" if any charges are filed against him.
"He is innocent until proven guilty," said Preminger. "The Democratic Party thinks George has been a good representative of the interests of the residents of his supervisorial district."
Meanwhile, Stacey Hendler Ross, spokeswoman for the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, which for years has endorsed Shirakawa's campaigns, said the Labor Council will "wait and find out what is really happening with all of this until we make some kind of judgment."
Resident Juanita Medina agrees. In an email to this newspaper on Monday, she wrote:
"Why doesn't the Mercury News write the good things Shirakawa has done for our community? In more than 20 years of public service, he has built parks in low-income neighborhoods, helped schools and kids and stood up for people with no voice. Our community needs more leaders like George."
Yet some county residents, local ethics experts and some top county executives who have pinched their pennies in the name of the public good, expressed outrage over the revelations and called for action.
"I think there should be a recall -- absolutely," said Marjorie Freedman, an associate professor of nutrition studies at San Jose State University. Freedman has followed news of Shirakawa's eyebrow-raising spending.
Freedman said at the very least, Shirakawa should step down until more is known. "While this investigation is happening, I don't think he should serve," Freedman said. "There are just too many things that just don't look good, again and again. It's far-fetched to think he can focus on his job."
Don Herbelin, a longtime county resident and retired truck driver, agreed there should be a recall or similar action. He called Shirakawa's spending practices "obscene," and faulted county officials for failing to keep closer watch. "He should be held to a higher standard than normal people," Herbelin said. "Who controls the Board of Supervisors -- they have to be answerable to somebody other than the citizens."
At Tuesday's supervisor's meeting, County Executive Jeff Smith has asked board members to discuss internal reviews of the county's Procurement Card Program now under way. In the wake of articles published in this newspaper and the Metro weekly, the county is examining all five board members' and several executive managers' use of county "P-cards."
The county is also revising the way charges are reviewed and approved, and whether it should impose a "per-transaction" spending limit, and curb "non-travel business meals."
The P-card is supposed to be used for "small-dollar goods and services," and travel-related expenses. But Shirakawa -- unlike all other supervisors -- has used his county-issued credit card at P.F. Chang's, the Cheesecake Factory and Red Lobster, where he has often dined with his political allies and office staffers. A total of $36,717 in credit card charges also includes charitable contributions to the state Democratic Party.
Failure to comply with the county's P-card policy -- "knowingly or through willful neglect" -- can result in criminal penalties and disciplinary action up to and including termination, the county policy states.
Professor Kirk Hanson, executive director of Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said the Shirakawa story is being closely watched by a wary public.
"If the accusations against Shirakawa are accurate, he has run afoul of both existing policies and his fundamental obligations to the public," Hanson said. "And particularly when someone is president of the board, they become a symbol of how all public officials manage the public's affairs. If the charges are accurate, he has done considerable damage to the public's confidence in how county government manages the public's funds."
Hanson said in order to retain the public's trust, the other four county supervisors may have to publicly distance themselves from Shirakawa's expanding troubles, noting that in situations like these, there are many ways to do that -- from public statement to formal censure.
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781 and Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.