Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr.'s four-year-long abuse of taxpayer-funded credit cards for personal meals, travel, donations and other purchases could end abruptly Tuesday if his board colleagues agree to tighten the monitoring of officials' spending.
The rules that supervisors will consider Tuesday for the first time spell out that misusing a credit card for personal expenses would lead to felony or misdemeanor prosecution and civil penalties. Shirakawa already faces a criminal probe by the District Attorney's Office as the fallout continues over the discovery of at least $26,071 in unauthorized charges that Shirakawa and his staff billed taxpayers.
The tighter rules would also cost county supervisors their cards if they tried to get away with another Shirakawa habit: filing vague "missing receipt memos" instead of itemized receipts.
And the rules would beef up oversight of credit card purchases that has lagged, county managers say, because subordinates were too intimidated to challenge their bosses.
Acting County Counsel Lori Pegg said Tuesday's meeting won't signal the end of the matter.
"These are changes and fixes we have identified now, but my office and the county executive's office will continue to review them to make sure they're effective, and make sure people understand them and that they're being followed," she said. The rules apply to future card use and are not retroactive.
While some of the proposed changes are new, many are based on rules that Shirakawa apparently ignored -- despite signing documents that he understood them, including that personal use of the card was prohibited.
"The new policies show zero tolerance for willful misuse," said Supervisor Ken Yeager. "The disciplinary action is very clear that misuse could lead to a misdemeanor or a felony. There's very clear language on George's behavior -- it's clear that he could not have misused the card as he has."
Shirakawa, whose yearlong term as board president ends Dec. 31, declined Friday to comment on the recommendations, most of which were inspired by his actions that were recently exposed in local newspapers.
While the credit cards are meant to be used for small-dollar purchases of supplies, materials, equipment, services and travel-related costs, two county audits revealed that since taking office in 2009, Shirakawa has billed to taxpayers 174 meals, as well as golf fees, casino stays and upgraded rental cars, and he has allowed his staff to donate thousands of dollars to nonprofits and charities with another office credit card.
Fellow board members said they were stunned by the recent revelations linked to Shirakawa's spending spree.
"The idea that we would wait two years or four years to discover errors and admissions is really unacceptable," said Supervisor Dave Cortese. "I certainly have some concerns about whether the right hand knows what the left hand is doing when it comes to accounting practices at the county."
Shirkawa, 50, who filed for personal bankruptcy last year, is also under investigation by the District Attorney's Office for not filing a series of required campaign contribution reports related to his 2008 run for office. The state's Fair Political Practices Commission is scrutinizing him, as well, over those same missing campaign files.
Among other policy changes going before the board Tuesday:
County Executive Jeff Smith, who estimates the county has spent about $200,000 over the past few months to investigate Shirakawa's expenses, acknowledged Friday that "it's disheartening that we are spending so much time and effort on this.'' Still, he said, "obviously it's a significant and important issue and we will spend as much time as it takes to get it resolved."
Cortese said the board has asked Pegg's office to provide them with legal sanctions they could apply against Shirakawa; he said he would support revoking his credit card.
Meanwhile, at least 11 people Shirakawa treated to meals over the years have since reimbursed the county. By Friday, three nonprofits -- Asian Americans for Community Involvement, the School of Arts & Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, and Somos Mayfair, had told Smith they will repay the county whatever amount Shirakawa's office contributed to their group.
"If there was a gift of public funds," Cortese said of those nonprofit donations, "there really isn't any way we can allow that."