Petersen’s attorney lobs ethics claim at County Attorney as he prepares for hearing on suspension

Dillon Rosenblatt//December 10, 2019

Petersen’s attorney lobs ethics claim at County Attorney as he prepares for hearing on suspension

Dillon Rosenblatt//December 10, 2019

This undated photo provided by the Maricopa County Assessor's Office shows Assessor Paul Petersen. Petersen has been indicted in an adoption fraud case, accused of arranging for dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to come to the U.S. to give their children up for adoption. Utah also has charged him on multiple felony counts, including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud. (Maricopa County Assessor's Office via AP)
Suspended Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen (Maricopa County Assessor’s Office via AP)

As suspended County Assessor Paul Petersen fends for his job in a hearing Wednesday, his attorney has leveled conflict-of-interest allegations against Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel similar to what led to the downfall of her predecessor Andy Thomas.

Attorney Kory Langhofer accused Adel in a Nov. 11 letter of acting adversely against Petersen by advising the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors how to remove him from office while she also represents him in a tax-court matter.  

“Direct adversity against a concurrent client is per se unethical,” Langhofer said in the letter.

Petersen, who the Board suspended on Oct. 29 for 120 days, has been granted a hearing Dec. 11 to convince the Board to rescind his suspension.

Petersen was suspended from office for “neglect of duty” for the 20 days he was detained in Arkansas and not able to do his job, and for violating county policy that he shall not use county resources for non-county business. Petersen, though, is not a county employee and therefore does not actually have to follow that rule and also cannot be disciplined for breaking it, according to a report written by private lawyers who were contracted to investigate whether Petersen neglected his duties. The investigators found he had not. 

Petersen stands accused in three states of running a human smuggling scheme that brought pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. for adoption. 

Kory Langhofer
Kory Langhofer

Langhofer compared Adel’s handling of the suspension to Thomas’ attempts to pursue false criminal charges against county supervisors, judges and other political foes, a charge for which he was subsequently disbarred.

In response to the accusation, Jennifer Liewer, a spokeswoman for Adel, said the letter was sent “to create a distraction to the issues at hand” and deferred any other comments to the letter written back to Langhofer. 

Adel’s attorney Lynda Shely responded in a Nov. 26 letter that called Langhofer’s claim “misplaced.” 

Langhofer argued that Adel is being unethical because the county attorney (and the office) have represented Petersen in other matters and is also now working “to remove him from office.” He noted that the entire five-member board called for Petersen to resign long before any investigation had taken place or evidence had been presented, and argued Adel should have recused herself from the case. 

“This issue would not have arisen if your office had recused from either advising the Board in connection with Paul’s suspension or from advising the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office in connection with all matters,” he wrote. “But because it offered legal advice adverse to a concurrent client, there is a substantial question as to whether your office has followed the inauspicious footsteps of your predecessor Andy Thomas.” 

In her response, Shely said neither Adel nor the county attorney have ever represented Petersen in his individual capacity, as Langhofer claimed. Adel only represents the county, and Petersen (even as an elected official) is not her client but rather a constituent of the county Adel’s office represents, Shely said. Additionally, Adel’s lawyer refuted that she acted in her own self-interest “for personal or political purposes in advising the Board related to their powers under [statute],” further saying the assertion is “unprofessional” at the least.

By accusing Adel of being unethical, Langhofer has some obligation to report this to the State Bar of Arizona, at least according to the Bar’s ethics rules.

One rule states that if one lawyer thinks another is being unethical they “shall inform the appropriate professional authority.” 

Adel might even have her own case to file a Bar complaint against Langhofer for making that accusation, if she feels it is violating the rules of professional conduct. 

Mark Harrison, an attorney for Osborn Maledon, said that ethics rule is rarely used because “the threshold for reporting is high.” It needs to meet the standard for raising a “substantial question.”

“In this case, there is an obvious disagreement between Kory and Linda Shely about whether Allister violated any rule,” Harrison said. “However, without regard to their disagreement, it would be a stretch to state that – even if Allister arguably violated a rule that her conduct raises a “substantial question” about her “honesty or … fitness as a lawyer.” 

The State Bar says no complaint has been filed against Adel as of Dec. 10. 

allister_adel_05072018_1Adel is also being called to testify in Petersen’s hearing on Wednesday, but a spokesperson said she does not plan to attend. And there is nothing that says Adel is required to testify. 

The scheduled hearing, which begins at 1 p.m. on Dec. 11, promises to be filled with some fireworks as two of the witnesses Petersen intends to call will be friendly (top members of his staff), while county spokesman Fields Moseley will be questioned on “communications with members of the Board concerning Mr. Petersen and the true reasons for the purported suspension.”

Langhofer has long accused the Board of predetermining its decision on Petersen’s suspension even with a recent preliminary report concluding that there is not enough evidence to prove Petersen neglected his office. 

Petersen is also calling all five Board members; Sheriff Paul Penzone; County Recorder Adrian Fontes; County Treasurer Royce Flora; and Russell Pearce, an employee of Flora’s office. Petersen also plans to submit all the parking records of other county officials that he and Langhofer have obtained so far in an attempt to prove Petersen’s lackluster attendance isn’t unusual for an elected official. 

They received the records for Fontes and the five supervisors but no other county official as of Dec. 6. Langhofer and his client are still waiting on the other information they requested and complained about “the county’s failure to produce” additional records necessary for Petersen’s defense. 

Meanwhile, Petersen and the county were in settlement negotiations to have him resign from his County Assessor seat.

12 News reported that Petersen wanted nine months of his $77,000 salary with benefits for his resignation. John Doran, who is representing the county in Petersen’s suspension, countered with six months worth of benefits and an ultimatum to be accepted only mere hours later. 

Langhofer rejected the offer and replied 90 minutes later. “That is an unserious offer designed to end the conversation; of course Paul declines,” he wrote.