More than seven months since he resigned from office and pleaded guilty to five felonies and seven misdemeanors, former county supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. will finally be sentenced for crimes that include perjury and a misuse of campaign funds.
Judge Daniel T. Nishigaya, the fourth judge to handle the case, set Nov. 8 for sentencing. The hearing is expected to run at least three hours and include witness testimony, a powerpoint presentation by the District Attorney’s Office and possible excerpts of video interviews conducted by the DA.
Michelle Lew, president of Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), is the only witness that could be called by the defense, according to Shirakawa’s attorney, John Williams. Lew, who also serves on the Mercury News editorial board, was one of several people who wrote letters in support of Shirakawa, according to Williams, who added that Lew recommended community service instead of jail time. Shirakawa blamed his crimes on a gambling addiction, and AACI does work in the Asian community to address such addictions.
But when reached for comment, Lew said her letter may have been mischaracterized.
“My intent, if called as a witness, is not to testify to his character,” she said. “Basically, what I said was AACI is willing to be a placement site if the judge would mandate him to do community service, which I think is different.
“AACI routinely takes court mandated volunteers,” Lew continued. “I would say we have 20 court mandated volunteers per year. If the judge mandates Mr. Shirakawa to do community service, we would discuss becoming a placement site for him.”
Lew’s letter, which will be taken into consideration by the San Mateo County Probate department when recommending a sentence to Judge Nishigaya, was written in April to Judge Philip Pennypacker, who has since recused himself from the trial as well as another case related to Shirakawa’s alleged role in a political mail fraud scandal.
Jay Rorty, of the independent defender’s office, is representing Shirakawa in that case, which will have its preliminary hearing following the first case’s sentencing hearing.
In her letter to Pennypacker, Lew wrote: “AACI works with many volunteers and is willing to be considered as a placement site for Mr. Shirakawa’s community service, including volunteer service up to 20 hours/week for one year. We can envision Mr. Shirakawa volunteering with our Center for Addiction Recovery and Empowerment (CARE), which helps individuals and their families address problem gambling issues. The program provides culturally competent community education, professional development, and individual and group treatment services related to problem gambling. CARE also provides linkages to support services including financial counseling and legal advice.”
Prosecutor Karyn Sinunu-Towery said in court Friday that she would like to ask Lew if she still has the same opinion on Shirakawa’s case considering the new allegations. Williams argued that this could become a slippery slope that combines both cases, which neither the defense nor DA want.
“I don’t want to get situation where (the witness will say), ‘I read in the newspaper he’s a bum,” Williams said.
Sinunu-Towery told Judge Nishigaya that she only plans to call “one live witness,” who could explain “the damage to the county” inflicted by Shirakawa. Moments after court, Sinunu-Towery said she plans to call Gary Graves, the county’s chief operations officer.
Before a brief recess Friday, Judge Nishigaya informed both sides’ attorneys of any potential conflicts of interest he may have, and gave them time to file objections to him presiding over either trial.
In addition to serving as a campaign co-treasurer for Sinunu-Towery’s run for District Attorney in 2006, Nishigaya worked directly under her chain of command before becoming a judge. He also noted that he and Lew’s children have shared a babysitter. Additionally, Nishigaya served on commissions that were overseen by Shirakawa during the latter’s time as president of the county Board of Supervisors.
Both Williams and Rorty said they found nothing rising to the level of a serious conflict.