Investigators tasked by Maricopa County Officials to investigate Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen found no evidence he “neglected” his duties.
However, they said it’s up to county supervisors to determine whether his refusal to cooperate in the probe and his alleged misuse of county resources amount to “neglect of duty.”
“The ultimate issue the board must decide is whether Mr. Petersen’s conduct amounts to ‘neglect of duty’ within the meaning of [statute]. As discussed above, we did not find evidence that Mr. Petersen failed to fulfill any particular statutory obligations of the County Assessor,” the investigators concluded in their report, a copy of which was obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times.
Attorney Kory Langhofer, who represents Petersen, said the report affirms his client’s argument that his suspension from office has no basis.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors had suspended Petersen without pay for 120 days on the grounds that he was in federal custody in Arkansas and could not serve.
Officials then asked former Attorney General Grant Woods to oversee the work of two private law firms hired to investigate whether Petersen neglected his duties.
Petersen is challenging his suspension, and supervisors must now weigh their decision against the investigators’ conclusions.
“While Mr. Petersen’s conduct with respect to his misuse of county resources may give rise to criminal charges or may form the basis for removal under ARS 38-341, the board must decide whether that conduct, as well as his absence from office for twenty days and his failure to cooperate with this investigation, amounts to ‘neglect of duty,’” the investigators said in the report.
They said while county supervisors may suspend Petersen for “defalcation or neglect of duty,” the statutes do not define “defalcation” or “neglect of duty,” although other authorities, including case law from Arizona courts, have helped to define those terms.
They noted that elected officials “may not be disciplined as county employees for violating policies.” County employees, on the other hand, are subject to disciplinary actions, including termination.
“Discipline aside, however, no one we spoke with expressed the view that elected officials are free to disregard County policies, and we do not believe that to be the case,” investigators said in the report.
In a statement, the county insisted that the report “confirms” the county supervisors’ grounds for suspending Petersen.
“If the information exonerated Mr. Petersen, the Board of Supervisors would cancel the hearing. That is not the case,” the county said.
The county pointed to findings in the report – that Petersen called adoption agencies and doctor’s offices on taxpayer time; that he stored “sensitive, highly personal ultrasound images and medical records” on his official computer “without encryption or even the most rudimentary safeguards” for privacy; and, that his computer also included documents and wire transfers associated with individuals identified in criminal indictments.
Among other findings, the report said people interviewed generally gave positive impressions of Petersen’s leadership.
“Although relatively hands-off in style, he understands the work of the office, sets a clear vision and direction for the Office, and delegates day-to-day operations to staff, particularly [Chief Deputy Assessor Tim] Boncoskey,” the report said, summarizing the interviews.
Langhofer said the report bolsters his client’s case.
“No matter how badly the Board of Supervisors wishes to overturn the decision of Maricopa County voters, facts are stubborn things and today’s report confirms what we have been saying for weeks: Paul Petersen is the duly elected Assessor – and by all accounts, he has performed his duties well,” Langhofer said in a statement. “Given the conclusions of the attorney paid by the county, we’re even more confident that a neutral tribunal would rule in our favor.”
Petersen stands accused in three states of running an illegal adoption scheme involving Marshallese women. He is free on bail after being booked into federal custody in Arkansas. His suspension appeal hearing is set for December 11.
Woods earlier said he wasn’t sure if less than a month’s time to investigate the matter was sufficient to conduct a “thorough” inquiry.
The investigators sought to interview Petersen, but said the latter put roadblocks to effectively rebuff their request.
“The board will need to decide whether sustained misuse of county resources while at the Office of the County Assessor and failing to cooperate with a county-authorized investigation means that Mr. Petersen neglected his duties as a county official,” their report said.
The investigators made attempts to interview Petersen on Nov. 19 and did not receive any response from him or his legal counsel by Nov. 25.
They also asked Petersen for a written statement and to return his county computer. The next day Petersen’s attorneys responded that he will have the laptop ready soon, the report said.
The report said Petersen would only agree to an interview with the caveat that Maricopa County release records about how much time other county elected officials spend in their offices.
“By placing these wide-ranging conditions on Mr. Petersen’s interview, he effectively refused our request. He also never submitted any information to us in writing. As a result, Mr. Petersen has provided no explanation as to why he maintained hundreds of documents relating to his private law practice and adoption business on the county network,” the report said.