SAN JOSE -- It has taken George Shirakawa Jr. almost 20 years to admit the depth of a gambling addiction he first acknowledged to the public within a year of taking over his father's San Jose City Council seat.

In November 1995, Shirakawa Jr. voted to more than double the number of tables at the city's two card rooms, Bay 101 and Garden City Casino.

While he sympathized with families torn apart by gambling addiction, he told the council that he supported the increase because otherwise gambling "will be illegal and uncontrolled."

He continued, "For those of you who gamble, if you've ever had the fever of gambling, which I have ... if you want to gamble, you are going to gamble, you are going to gamble. You will find you will travel, you will do whatever you have to do to get the money, to have that feeling of gambling, and that's very powerful."

But after the vote, Shirakawa Jr. said he didn't consider himself a problem gambler.

On Monday, that fever will force the now-51-year-old former Santa Clara County supervisor to plead guilty to a string of crimes, from perjury to misusing campaign and taxpayer funds, ending forever his political career in California.

"George had an opportunity to create a name for himself, and unfortunately he let his demons take over," said Jose Montes de Oca, a former director of the Alum Rock Counseling Center who worked for Shirakawa's father when he was a councilman. "I'm not one to run from a friend, but the community deserves better."

Perhaps the first glimmer that Shirakawa Jr. had a gambling problem came just three months after winning election to his father's seat, when this newspaper reported spotting him at 3 a.m. playing pai gow at Harrah's Lake Tahoe casino.

The demons that drove him should come as no surprise to many, including his family.

As his father once told his council colleagues in 1992 during a debate involving the Garden City Casino, where he'd played cards for more than two decades: "I happen to come from a family of gamblers."

Indeed, a family friend remembers how worried the councilman's wife was when her husband failed to come home one Friday night, only to hear from him the next day that he was gambling in Reno and needed her to wire him money.

Yet those who knew the burly, gregarious George Shirakawa Sr. say his casual gambling never escalated to a crippling malady.

Montes de Oca remembers the trips he took over the years with Shirakawa Sr. and a few others for a "guy's weekend'' at a friend's cabin near Lake Tahoe. At night, they'd head into South Lake Tahoe for dinner, followed by a few hours at the slot machines or the tables, then return to the cabin.

"But it was nothing like what's been described in the newspapers" about Shirakawa Jr., said Montes de Oca of the charges filed against the former supervisor, including using campaign donations he collected in a $100,000 slush fund to fuel his gambling excursions.

Shirakawa Jr. has not responded to requests for interviews since his financial problems first became public last year. Instead, he's only released a few statements -- a mixture of bluster, denial and contrition. His family declined to be interviewed for this story. In his resignation letter, the former supervisor admitted he's seeking help for his addiction, as well as depression.

Montes de Oca and others painted a complicated portrait of the relationship between a loving but at times frustrated Shirakawa Sr. and his eldest son, who was not living up to his potential.

San Jose State lecturer Gil Villagran, at that time a gang prevention counselor, recalls the father complaining to him about Shirakawa Jr.

"I remember he said, 'I'm having trouble with my own kid, and he's an adult now. He won't apply himself; he doesn't have a job; he's watching TV all day long,'" Villagran said.

Shirakawa Sr.'s drive was legendary in the community. Many say it came from his tough life growing up in the Central Valley as the son of a Japanese-American father and Latino mother. The biracial family endured hardships, including time at a World War II internment camp. Shirakawa Sr.'s parents later divorced.

As he rose from East Side Union High School District teacher and counselor to City Hall insider, advocating for the neighborhoods of Council District 7 -- which range from middle-class to poor, including several high-crime areas -- Shirakawa Sr. and his wife, JoAnn, raised a family: George Jr., daughter Navette and youngest son Kenley.

While Navette remained the apple of his eye, George Sr. was worried about his namesake, friends said -- and for good reason. By 19, he was married with two daughters. After Shirakawa Jr.'s stint in the U.S. Army as a military police officer stationed in Germany, the couple divorced in 1985. In 1987, it took a criminal prosecution to make him pay child support.

But a few years later, "J.R.," or "Little George," as he was called by some, had a chance to start fresh. With his father's help he landed a job as a yard duty monitor with the East Side Union High School District, followed by a position as a school liaison, and later as a high school coach. During that time, he also was elected as a trustee of the Franklin-McKinley School District.

By 1994, he was helping to run his 54-year-old father's campaign for re-election. Yet while awaiting his second heart surgery in three months, the elder Shirakawa was worried enough to ask friends, including then-Councilman Jim Beall, to look out for his son. The father died after surgery.

By early June, the deceased candidate -- whose name was already printed on the ballot -- won handily. With the blessing of his mother and family, the son successfully sought to be appointed by the council to his father's seat until a November election could be held. Shirakawa Jr. won that election.

Like many political newcomers, he struggled with the challenges of holding office, but taking after his father, Shirakawa Jr.'s affable nature helped him make the transition. And like his father, he gambled.

Although Shirakawa Sr. had played locally, the son preferred Lake Tahoe. Pai gow, Caribbean poker and Texas Hold 'em are Shirakawa Jr.'s weaknesses, according to sources who asked not to be named. And in some instances, they say, he's been very lucky -- reportedly winning $30,000 at one game in the 1990s.

"It's the worst thing for someone who's an addict," said a former co-worker. "He'll keep chasing that for the rest of his life."

The financial devastation Shirakawa Jr.'s gambling has unleashed on his life may have led him in 2011 to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allowed him to avoid foreclosure on his parents' modest home, where he still lives with his teenage son and his son's mother, as well as Kenley and his family. The bankruptcy filing, which Shirakawa Jr. never completed, revealed he owed the Internal Revenue Service almost $200,000 in delinquent income taxes and penalties.

Despite his addiction, money problems and stress-related health issues, Shirakawa Jr. maintained a connection to the voters. He served multiple terms on two school boards and two terms on the City Council. In June, he won re-election to a second term on the Board of Supervisors without even a challenger.

"It's amazing to me that George was able to ride his father's coattails for all these elections," Villagran said. "You've got to give him credit for that."

Yet others say he often chafed under the pressure of trying to live up to the elder Shirakawa, whose name graces a community center and elementary school in the district.

"You'd go to an event, and someone would launch into, 'Oh, your dad was such a great guy,'" recalled a former co-worker who said the accolades for the father continue to this day. "If it was me, it would get really tiresome."

Among his City Council accomplishments, Shirakawa Jr. pushed to build the district's only public golf course, a homeless shelter and safer neighborhood streets. As supervisor, he was lauded for helping to establish a downtown medical clinic and leading a program to incorporate released prisoners back into society.

But over the years in public office, observers say, Shirakawa Jr. surrounded himself with an inner circle that enabled his bad habits and lack of discipline, rarely pushing back.

Co-workers say by the time he started his first term as supervisor, he constantly ignored the protocols involved in maintaining receipts and records, which ultimately contributed to his downfall.

Cora Tomalinas, a retired nurse and longtime District 7 activist who calls herself Shirakawa Jr.'s "best advocate and worst critic," agreed that his strengths -- including his loyalty to friends -- are also his weaknesses.

But she has faith that like the biblical prodigal son, who squandered his father's inheritance only to ask for and be granted forgiveness, Shirakawa Jr. will receive the same in time.

"Everybody makes mistakes, and he did," said a teary-eyed Tomalinas. "But you've got to have hope for people."

Staff researcher Leigh Poitinger contributed to this report.

THE CHARGES
On Monday afternoon, George Shirakawa Jr. is expected to plead 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.
Prosecutors say the veteran politician engaged in a persistent pattern of misusing public money and campaign funds for prohibited expenses, including parties, golf outings and gambling.
Shirakawa Jr. has also agreed to sign a stipulation admitting to 10 counts of violating the Political Reform Act, by making expenditures of campaign funds for personal use, and will pay a penalty of $5,000 per count, for a total of $50,000.
At a later sentencing, he could face up to a year in county jail.
Source: Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office