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Maricopa County suspends official charged with human trafficking

PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Monday to suspend an elected official who was charged earlier this month for allegedly running a human smuggling scheme.

Paul Petersen, the county’s assessor, was suspended 120 days, the maximum by state law. He will be able to appeal.

“Mr. Petersen’s failure to meaningfully oversee the operations of his office for an extended period and repeated misuse of county resources to conduct his private law practice constitutes neglect of duty,” the motion approved by the board said.

The board will have to appoint an interim assessor to lead the agency during Petersen’s suspension.

Auditors found hundreds documents related to Petersen’s adoption business on his county-issued computer, a fact cited by the board in its decision to suspend him.

Petersen was arrested Oct. 8 and indicted on 32 counts — including sale of a child, conspiracy and fraud — in three states and remains in federal custody.

Gov. Doug Ducey and the board called for Petersen to resign shortly after his arrest. He has not signaled any intent to give up his $77,000-a-year job.

The board has been looking for ways to legally oust him because state law only allows for a temporary suspension for neglect of duty by a county assessor or treasurer.

Petersen’s lawyer has said removing an elected official from office before a conviction may be unconstitutional.

Republican state Rep. Anthony Kern proposed a bill that would allow a treasurer or assessor to be removed with a two-thirds vote of the county board of supervisors, but the Legislature is not back in session until January.

Petersen and a co-conspirator were accused of recruiting, transporting and offering to pay more than 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to adopt out their babies in the United States between November 2015 and May 2019.

They also are accused of claiming the women were Arizona residents on paperwork to get them state-funded health care coverage, bilking Arizona’s Medicaid system out of more than $800,000.

Petersen’s attorney has said prosecutors have miscast his client as a human smuggler.

He could face a $5 million fine and up to 315 years in prison.

Native American leaders have called for an expanded investigation after the Phoenix New Times reported Petersen’s law firm helped place at least one Native American baby.

The Arizona Legislature’s Indigenous Peoples Caucus expressed concern that Petersen may have violated the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

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