Shirakawa Sentencing Date Set; Mercury News Editorial Board Member Could be Defense Witness

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.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

5 Comments

  1. Geo is a felon, and his crimes illustrate a corrupt lifestyle that went on for years, not a simple one time mistake.  Other felons would have spent the past months in county jail awaiting sentencing, but not Geo. He stays home watching TV and eating junk food.

    Geo is still being treated like a big shot. Maybe he’ll be sentenced to a few days of yard duty at the local elementary school – That’ll teach him not to rip off the public for big bucks, and then cost the county taxpayers millions more cleaning up his mess!

  2. “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.

    If your BS detector doesn’t go off after reading that, you must be brain dead.  Does Lew cast around looking for every suitable placement and write letters to judges suggesting placement?  Duh.

    This is another blatant attempt to use race to Shirakawa’s benefit.

    Was this quid pro quo for a past favor?  I apologize for the baseless allegation, but it was the first thing that came into my mind.

  3. This could be a blessing in disguise for George. I bet slammer diet will do him well and decrease his insulin dosage.  You see what gambling does, and we still expand card rooms in San Jose. What a shame!

    • The only reason the City sanctions this destructive, soul eroding activity is to raise revenue for itself. This ought to be a clear signal of how far off the rails our government has gone. It no longer serves the public’s interests. It serves itself.