Features & Columns
The Campaign Secrets
of George Shirakawa
George Shirakawa's face flushes crimson as he begins a mea culpa for failing to file campaign disclosure forms the last four years. He then confirms that more than $50,000 in campaign funds were paid out to a close friend, a former lover and two of his daughters. At least that's what was documented, back when he completed forms four years ago. It's harder to figure out what's gone on in George Jr.'s nepotistic campaign organization since his reporting went dark.
The chair of Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors says that he expects to pay fines totaling more than $10,000 for not filing campaign forms after he was elected in 2008—but that could be a fraction of the Fair Political Practices Commission penalty if an investigation determines that Shirakawa broke the law.
Wearing a white, crew-necked dress shirt and black suspenders as he sits at the head of a conference table in his office, the longtime public officeholder feels compelled to offer an apology for his stunning lack of transparency.
"When you make a mistake, you have to make it right," Shirakawa says. "And I'm not giving you an excuse. I do feel bad about it. But it's nothing sinister. There's nothing to hide. Most of the money is coming to me."
This is true. Shirakawa found himself deep in the hole after defeating Richard Hobbs in November 2008 for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors. His victorious supervisor campaign had $109,978 of debt, almost a third of which consisted of personal loans Shirakawa made.
"I'm straightforward with you," he says. "A lot of the money comes back to me, absolutely. Absolutely. That's money I put into the campaign."
What Shirakawa has not been transparent about is how he has collected money to pay off his campaign debt. Also, a close examination of documents that were filed in 2008 and early 2009 shows that Shirakawa made payouts to family members, friends and the mother of one of his children before, during and after the 2008 supervisor race.
Shirakawa is the top political official in a county that spends more than $4 billion each year of the public's money. He's president of the Board of Supervisors, which oversees county law enforcement—including incarceration, prosecution, coroners, courts and public defenders—as well as tax collection and assessment, elections and a large network of health care, mental health and other social services.
Unlike Supervisors Mike Wasserman or Liz Kniss, Shirakawa does not live in a wealthy area like Palo Alto or Los Gatos, and he didn't grow up rich like Dave Cortese or get a Ph.D. from Stanford University like Supervisor Ken Yeager. He comes from humble roots on the East Side of San Jose, the son of a Japanese-Latino father who worked in the fields and was in an internment camp as a youngster during World War II. Shirakawa attended public schools in San Jose and served as a police sergeant in the U.S. Army, then went on to youth counseling and sports coaching jobs at Yerba Buena and Foothill high schools in San Jose.
His father, George Shirakawa, Sr., was elected to the San Jose City Council in 1990. A beloved public figure (a San Jose elementary school is named after him), George Sr. died in office while running for re-election in 1994. His son, then in his early 30s, was appointed by councilmembers to fill his seat. George Jr. was then elected to serve a second term, part of which he spent as vice mayor.
After leaving the council, Shirakawa went on to work as a lobbyist while also serving on the East Side Union school board. Before taking over his father's City Council seat, Shirakawa was elected to serve on the Franklin McKinley school board in 1992.
Shirakawa is one of the longest-serving elected officials ever in local politics, which makes his refusal to file campaign-disclosure documents after his 2008 county supervisor race all the more baffling.
Unless a campaign is closed out in good financial standing or the debt is absorbed, elected officials and losing candidates must continue to file semi-annual forms disclosing how much money is being collected, where it is coming from and how it is being spent.
According to the county Registrar of Voters, Shirakawa has failed to file nine forms pertaining to his 2008 committee, from 2009 through 2012. Without these forms, it's impossible to know if Shirakawa has complied with ethical standards on campaign contributions, as well as how those contributions may have influenced his vote on county contracts worth millions of dollars.
None of this, however, stopped Shirakawa from filing for re-election this spring. Had he failed to do so, Shirakawa would have relinquished a position that paid him $215,000 in total compensation in 2011. Instead, he ran unopposed—no doubt, in part, because of his name power—and automatically retained his seat for another four years.
The stated reasons Shirakawa failed to file disclosure documents pertaining to his 2008 campaign changed several times over the course of a 45-minute interview on Sept. 12 in his county office.
"I didn't know the law says you have to file like you would if you're running," Shirakawa says. "I didn't know. I should have just closed the damn account a long time ago. That's the truth. You'll see I'm closing that shit out, and everything else I have I'm going to close out."
Moments later, though, Shirakawa admits that he did know he owed campaign disclosure filings to the Registrar of Voters, which sent him more than a dozen delinquent notices after he joined the Board of Supervisors in January 2009.
"I got the letters, and like I said, there's no excuse," he says. "It was on my mind. I know I have to do it; I didn't do it. There's no excuse, brother."
Shirakawa says he has "paid down, probably, 100 percent" of his personal loans to the campaign, which in total came to $78,100. (The supervisor refused to answer where this money came from in a follow-up email.) He is more confident in saying that he still has outstanding debts to other people. And yet there is no record to show any of this aside from some handwritten notes Shirakawa provided on two pieces of yellow scratch paper, one of which, he says, informally lists the top expenses immediately after the 2008 election.
Fourth on the list of expenses is a "staff retreat," for which Shirakawa says he and seven staffers went to Reno for the weekend. "That should give you some fodder to write about," he says. The supervisor believes the trip cost "roughly" $3,500, and he insists that work was done during the retreat—in between dinners, gambling and going to a comedy show.