A scathing internal audit released Monday finds that Santa Clara County Board President George Shirakawa Jr. used his taxpayer-funded credit card to pay for his personal expenses and for items "strictly prohibited" since he took office in 2009 and demands the District 2 supervisor "immediately reimburse" $12,772.
Together with what the board president already has had to pay back, if Shirakawa complies with the latest crackdown, he will have had to return more than half of his 240 credit card charges totaling $36,837 for his four years as a supervisor.
The audit follows several reports in the media about Shirakawa's flagrant use of his "procurement card," designed for small-item purchases and county business trip expenses.
But Shirakawa, who filed for personal bankruptcy last year, appears to have used his P-card as if it were his own personal fund, charging his constituents for golf fees in Nevada, casino hotel stays and unauthorized rental car upgrades. Then, he failed to properly report his charges: County auditors found Shirakawa spent $10,354 in 174 visits to local restaurants for which he never filed the required itemized receipts, instead filing less detailed missing receipt memos. Although these same auditors have reviewed Shirakawa's use of the card three times since 2009, until the media exposure they never pointed out a pattern.
Auditors noted in Monday's report that while county policy allows for missing receipt memos "on an exception basis," in Shirakawa's case "the exception became the norm." The strongly worded audit also said that on "several instances" the supervisor "did not comply with the County's policies for P-Card usage, procurement, travel, or local business meals," and auditors found "many irregularities in the examined P-Card usage."
In his three-page response to the audit, Shirakawa pointed to memos in 2009, 2010 and 2011 by the Controller-Treasurer Department that stated in part that the supervisor's credit card charges for all three years "followed the policies and procedures set forth in the Procurement Card program." Shirkawa's office declined to comment on the audit when contacted by a reporter.
He also highlighted statements in those memos that said Shirakawa's credit card records were "well-organized and maintained."
Yet Shirakawa appeared to agree with most of the audit's findings and said he would submit reimbursements -- or has already paid back -- many of the expenses within 30 days. He noted, for example, he has reimbursed the county for the $175 he charged for the Democratic Party state convention registration fee.
But he is disputing other charges that he is being asked to repay, such as $175 worth of gift cards to a community group and a $2,500 donation to the East Side Union School District. Shirakawa also is pushing back on returning funds for more than 50 staff lunches he paid for at a taxpayer cost of $4,758. He said those meals could be justified "on a case-by-case basis, if it is more efficient and productive to meet with individual staff members in the field, rather than return to the County Government Center, to prepare for upcoming meetings held in the community that same day."
Any disputed charges will be reviewed again by the county auditors and ultimately may have to be resolved by the full Board of Supervisors.
Shirakawa, who recently lashed out at media reports of his spending -- describing them as a "political lynching" -- said he will, however, reimburse the county $1,230.17 for meals related to "social functions."
It may be tougher to push back with two other authorities reviewing Shirakawa's accountability to constituents. The board president is under investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office for possible criminal misuse of public funds, and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission is examining Shirakawa's failure to file campaign finance reports from his 2008 run for county supervisor. Failure to provide those key documents could cost the veteran politician tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
The county audit released Monday noted that Shirakawa did respond previously when red flags were raised, reimbursing the county $7,049 for "various personal charges." But the paybacks were far from timely. "Most of these reimbursements were made several months after the card was first charged," auditors noted, adding: "These personal purchases violated County policies and should never have been charged to the county-issued PCard in the first place."
County auditors say they are not done yet. The Controller-Treasurer will now audit all spending in Shirakawa's District 2, including his staffers' credit card transactions, many of which also include questionable meals and missing receipts, this newspaper found. County officials also vow to tighten up their policies and procedures "in order to avoid confusion and provide uniformity" in implementing county policies.
Details on the proposed credit card policy revisions are expected to be presented to the board at its Dec. 18 meeting.
Supervisor Ken Yeager is seeking to get ahead of the curve at the board's Tuesday meeting by recommending that all elected county officials who have county-issued credit cards submit a quarterly report of their credit card expenses to the board's agenda for public review. From now on, Yeager also wants all records of credit card charges by elected county officials to be routed to either the County Finance Department or County Executive's office for scrutiny.
After all, Yeager said, until the reports about the credit card abuses surfaced in the local media, "nobody had any idea what people were spending the money on."
"It's really important that there is full transparency about our expenditures," he said. "It's public money, and the best way to make sure we are all following the rules is to have us report out in an open meeting for everybody to see what we are doing."
Yeager, who in January will assume the board presidency after Shirakawa's troubled tenure in 2012, said it's time to "earn the public's trust back."
"Clearly there has not been enough oversight of these expenditures," Yeager said. "Even though we have many policies in place, often administrators don't know how to be critical of the expenditures by elected officials who in many instances might be their bosses."