The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Friday to uphold Maricopa County Assessor Paul Peterson’s 120-day suspension and directed the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to pursue his removal from office.
The board based its decision on a final report submitted to them by investigators, who found on his county laptop hundreds of documents relating to an alleged adoption ring such as agreements related to adoption services, law office bank records, screenshots of threatening text messages between Petersen and Marshallese women who were paid to give their children up for adoption.
According to the report, someone tried to wipe the county computer twice – once on October 30, a day after Petersen was released from federal custody and again on November 12, and the private attorneys who made up the investigative team suggested Petersen may have committed crimes such as tampering or destruction of public records and criminal damage for intentionally wiping the data from the computer.
County Supervisor Steve Gallardo said he was appalled at what investigators found.
“I’m outraged,” Gallardo said. “This is unconscionable. There’s a reason why we light this building every October purple… This is human trafficking at its best. You cannot describe it any more than human trafficking, and he did it while he was on the clock.”
Petersen stands accused in three states of paying women from the Marshall Islands to deliver their children in the U.S. and of organizing the adoptions of them to American families. He also faces charges of smuggling and adoption fraud in Arkansas and Utah and with defrauding the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
The board suspended Petersen Oct. 28. Although the board held an appeals hearing on Dec. 19, it did not decide on upholding the suspension until after the final report was completed and released. The delay came about because the investigative team didn’t have his laptop.
The final report’s findings, Gates said, were enough to support a finding of willful misconduct of office.
“The assessor obviously did not fulfill his duties when he was in custody for 20 days and I also believe that he neglected his duties as well by having documents related to the adoption practice on his county computer,” Gates said. “But beyond that, Mr. Petersen has a duty to protect county property and he failed to fulfill that duty when he allowed that county computer to be used for that private adoption practice.”
Gates and the board are asking Mr. Petersen to resign from office to save the county from spending more public money. Supervisor Hickman said he will soon ask the Maricopa County and Arizona Republican Parties to call on Petersen to resign.
His attorney, Kory Langhofer, has said in the past that he is considering suing the board as an option and has not indicated his client will resign anytime soon. If the county attorney doesn’t take action before then, the suspension will end.
Jennifer Liewer, a spokeswoman for County Attorney Allister Adel, said Adel is reviewing the board’s motion and determining her next step.
Langhofer could not be immediately reached for comment in time for publication.
This comes a week after Petersen’s co-defendant, Lynwood Jennet agreed to testify against him in a plea agreement that dropped 45 charges against her. Jennet pleaded guilty to four charges in Maricopa County Superior Court on December 19: one count of conspiracy to commit fraudulent schemes and artifices, two counts of theft and a failure to file a tax return. She also agreed to pay $1 million in restitution.
Prosecutors said Jennet, a Marshallese woman who worked for Petersen for six years, was the intermediary between Petersen and the Marshallese women and helped them fraudulently apply for Medicaid benefits.